Oaks case was part of larger 'dragnet' looking into Baltimore council, state legislature, his lawyers say

The FBI investigation that led to bribery and obstruction-of-justice charges against a Baltimore state senator was part of a larger attempt to implicate members of the Baltimore City Council and the Maryland legislature, the senator’s attorneys said in a new court filing.

Attorneys for state Sen. Nathaniel Oaks said that for more than a year the FBI “coerced, cajoled and enticed multiple associates and friends of Senator Oaks” as part of a “dragnet ‘investigation’ into members of the Baltimore City Council and the Maryland legislature.”

They say “some of these friends and associates were knowingly assisting the government as registered sources with the FBI.”

The claims significantly expand the known scope of the federal investigation, though Oaks remains the only person known to be facing charges.

Oaks is accused of taking $15,300 in cash payments from an FBI source he believed to be a wealthy out-of-town businessman.

Responding to those allegations for the first time, Oaks’ attorneys with the federal public defender’s office said he believed the businessman wanted to “bring much-needed housing and economic development to the most needy parts of Baltimore City,” which Oaks “enthusiastically endorsed and supported.”

The FBI’s source initiated and pushed the idea of payments to Oaks, said Lucius Outlaw III and Rebecca Talbott, Oaks’ public defenders.

In addition to taking cash payments, Oaks is charged with obstruction of justice after allegedly becoming a government cooperator and then tipping off the target of an investigation.

The federal government said last week that Oaks confessed to taking money and upending the second investigation, charges Oaks is now contesting as he embarks on his 30th legislative session this week.

Republican Gov. Larry Hogan said Oaks should step down from the legislature, but Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller said it would be “unfair” for the legislature to vote to remove Oaks before he has his day in court.

Oaks’ attorneys said in their rebuttal to the government’s filings that Oaks’ alleged confessions were not recorded by the FBI, which they call “troublesome and disconcerting.”

The government’s filing revealed “contested evidence and confidential investigation material” and was a “pre-trial smear job” to convict Oaks in the media and taint the jury pool, his attorneys added.

Details of the FBI case have been slow to emerge. The government has said that it had been investigating Oaks since 2014, “based on historical reporting that Oaks was associated with individuals who were involved in illegal activities, and that Oaks had inappropriately accepted money and other things of value from businesspersons and lobbyists in his capacity as a state delegate.”

In recent filings, the government has disclosed some new pieces of the case.

In December, documents were unsealed showing that a Baltimore County businessman named Bruce Crockett had discussed making cash payments to Oaks and other city officials. Crockett died in a motorcycle accident last year.

Last week’s government filing also alleged that someone with ties to the bail bonds industry, who was supporting favorable legislation, told the FBI that he had paid Oaks and another undisclosed elected official thousands of dollars over the years. Prosecutors said in the filing that Oaks was helping the government pursue the person, at one point recording himself taking $2,600 that had been slid underneath a table at an Annapolis restaurant.

The identities of the target and the other official have not been released.

Oaks was convicted in 1989 of stealing thousands of dollars out of his campaign account while serving in the House of Delegates. He regained his seat in 1994 and was appointed to the state Senate last year to replace a legislator who stepped down because of ill health.

He is one of five state senators representing Baltimore. His senatorial salary is $50,330 a year.

Oaks was introduced to the FBI source he knew was “Mike Henley” at Ruth’s Chris Steakhouse in Pikesville in September 2015. In the following months, they discussed a Department of Housing and Urban Development project in the city, and the cooperator gave Oaks a draft letter of support for the real estate project, addressed to HUD’s Chicago office and containing various false statements about the project, prosecutors say.

Oaks was recorded accepting $15,300 in cash bribes, including one payment made after he filed paperwork for a bill to issue $250,000 in state bonds to support the project.

Oaks drove the FBI source around town to identify properties in need of economic development.

“Some of these ride-alongs included members of Baltimore’s political and government elite,” Oaks’ attorneys say.

On Friday, federal prosecutors said Oaks had confessed in a hotel room where he was shown videos of himself accepting cash. Later, agents sensed the demeanor of the target of their investigation had changed, and they say Oaks confessed that he had warned the target not to say anything incriminating.

Oaks’ attorneys said he had “hundreds if not thousands” of recorded conversations with “Mike Henley,” in which “money for any purpose was never discussed.”

The new disclosures came in a series of filings in which Oaks’ attorneys are trying to separate the bribery and obstruction-of-justice cases.

jfenton@baltsun.com

twitter.com/justin_fenton

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