State Sen. Nathaniel T. Oaks, a longtime Baltimore state legislator, was charged in U.S. District Court Friday with accepting cash payments in exchange for using his position to influence a development project.
The 70-year-old Democrat from Southwest Baltimore turned himself in and pleaded not guilty Friday afternoon to one count of wire fraud. The allegations stem from an FBI investigation conducted while he was in the House of Delegates. Federal prosecutors wrote in court documents that Oaks used his legislative letterhead to misrepresent the status of state funding for a project in exchange for money.
If convicted, Oaks faces a maximum sentence of 20 years in prison, federal prosecutors said. He appeared in court Friday in handcuffs, but was eventually released on his own recognizance.
Oaks, whose political base is Edmondson Village, was chosen in January by the Democratic State Central Committee to fill the 41st District Senate seat left vacant when Lisa A. Gladden resigned for health reasons. Oaks served 28 years in the House of Delegates; his tenure was interrupted for five years starting in 1989 after he was convicted of stealing from his campaign fund.
Since his return to the House in 1995, Oaks has not held a leadership position. But he has been a distinctive presence in his trademark kufi cap.
According to a complaint filed in federal court, an unidentified person who was the subject of a different FBI investigation and cooperating with authorities introduced Oaks to an FBI source, who portrayed himself as an out-of-town businessman interested in obtaining contracts in Baltimore through a minority-owned business.
Oaks met the source at Ruth's Chris Steakhouse in Pikesville in September 2015, authorities say. During the ensuing months, they discussed a U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development project, with Oaks showing the source potential sites in the city.
"I'mma do everything within my power and my authority to lead you right into the, to the place where you can do well," Oaks was recorded saying, according to the complaint.
In April 2016, the FBI says the source asked Oaks how much he wanted to be compensated. Oaks put a Tootsie Pop in his mouth and, when asked if $5,000 was enough, "shook his head from side to side and then made an upward motion with his thumb," the complaint says.
Oaks sent two letters to HUD falsely indicating that he secured matching funds from the state for the development project, and he received cash payments from the FBI source, according to the federal complaint. He also falsely stated he was sponsoring legislation that would secure state funding, authorities say.
Oaks allegedly filed a $250,000 bond bill for the project on a site outside his legislative district on a large vacant lot on Druid Park Lake Drive, and was paid $5,000 by the source in a hotel room.
In all, federal authorities said Oaks received $15,300 in payments for his assistance on the project, with each payment supplied by the FBI and the transactions recorded by investigators.
Oaks declined to comment on the case before and after his court hearing. Former Baltimore State's Attorney Stuart O. Simms was assigned to his case as a court-appointed lawyer. Oaks said in court that he did not have enough money to hire an attorney.
Oaks had served two terms in the House of Delegates when in 1989 he was convicted of stealing more than $10,000 from his re-election fund. He was also convicted of perjury and misconduct in office. He was given a five-year suspended sentence and ordered to perform 500 hours of community service.
Oaks won back his seat in 1994 and has served ever since. State legislators, whose jobs are considered part-time, are paid $48,622 annually.
Oaks is known for an irreverent approach to his job. When he took the oath of office as a senator, he did so by swearing on a smart phone he used to call up a biblical passage. His official biography shows that despite his seniority, he has not chaired any General Assembly committee or subcommittee.
Fellow lawmakers expressed support for Oaks, but also shock.
City Council President Bernard C. "Jack" Young called Oaks a "personal friend of mine."
"I stand with my friend," he said.
Mayor Catherine Pugh said she believes Oaks should be afforded the same rights as all Americans accused of a crime. "He's innocent until proven otherwise," she said.
Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller said he was disappointed and shocked to learn of the charges against Oaks. In a private meeting with Oaks, Miller advised he turn himself in.
"He didn't want to be a distraction and he didn't want to bring disrepute on the Senate, so he and his staff left" Annapolis, said Miller, a Calvert County Democrat.
Miller said he wasn't sure if Oaks would come back to the State House for the final day of the 90-day session on Monday. Miller said he wasn't worried about the effect of Oaks' absence on legislation that still hangs in the balance at the end of the session.
"I think it's more important that he not be here, quite frankly, with these charges hanging over his head," Miller said.
As the details of the investigation circulated in the Senate Friday, and senators read the charges, Miller offered an amendment to an ethics bill increasing the fines for bribery up to $10,000.
While the change wouldn't apply to a federal case like Oaks', Miller said he thought it was important to make a statement about holding public officials to a high standard.
"They're the ones that are the ones making the laws and they can't be the lawbreakers," Miller said. "If they are charged and they are convicted, they should pay the highest penalty possible."
The Oaks arrest means a General Assembly that started with a stain of corruption will end the same way when it adjourns Monday. When the legislature convened on Jan. 11, Del. Michael Vaughn abruptly resigned for what he said were health reasons. He was indicted in March on federal corruption charges involving the Prince George's County liquor board.
The day before the session opened, former Prince George's Del. Will Campos pleaded guilty to bribery and conspiracy in the same corruption investigation for actions he took while serving on the Prince George's County Council. Also, Gary Brown, an aide to Pugh, lost his nomination to represent Baltimore in the House after he was charged with campaign finance violations.
All of the charged legislators are Democrats. Republican Gov. Larry Hogan criticized their actions as being part of a culture of corruption in Annapolis.
In response, the governor proposed a sweeping ethics bill to put lawmakers under the supervision of the State Ethics Commission. The Assembly rejected that approach on constitutional grounds, but a rewritten version of the legislation is moving toward final passage. It would still represent the most comprehensive revision of state ethics law in more than a decade.
Del. Curt Anderson, the chairman of the Baltimore House delegation, said that based on his reading of the criminal complaint, the case against Oaks didn't look especially strong.
"I know it's a cliche to say a person is innocent until proven guilty, but I think in this case Oaks has a chance of maintaining his innocence through a criminal trial," Anderson said.
Sen. Thomas M. "Mac" Middleton, chairman of the Finance Committee, of which Oaks is a member, said Oaks had become a valued member of the panel.
The chairman said Oaks played a major role in the approval of recent legislation ensuring Baltimore students returning from after-school activities could ride free on Maryland Transit Administration buses and trains.
"It really breaks my heart that this is happening to him," Middleton said. "He fought real hard for Baltimore city."
Sen. Joan Carter Conway, a veteran Baltimore Democrat, said she was not familiar with the details of the charges against her colleague.
"I'm devastated," she said. "I'll be praying for him and wishing him well."
Baltimore Sun reporters Erin Cox, Michael Dresser and Pamela Wood contributed to this article.