Roughly Speaking Dan Rodricks: Commentary and conversation on life in Baltimore, Maryland and the USA

Second time around for Nathaniel Oaks

The death Sunday of Jervis Finney, a square-jawed, buttoned-down attorney of the patrician class who served as the top federal prosecutor in Maryland, recalls a time when the state seemed to have become a fetid swamp of political corruption.

I mean, it was politics as panhandling: lots of guys in polyester suits with their palms out.

This goes back to the Watergate era and the fall of Spiro T. Agnew, vice president to Richard Nixon, on charges stemming from Agnew's time as Maryland governor and Baltimore County executive. Agnew turned out to have been a first-class crook, taking kickbacks for years, up and through his tenure in the vice president's office.

After Agnew came a 32-count federal indictment against the county executive who had succeeded him in Towson. And then the Anne Arundel County executive went down on corruption charges. So did the state's attorney for Baltimore County.

Then, in 1975, after Finney had become the U.S. attorney for Maryland, the governor who had succeeded Agnew was indicted in an elaborate scheme to benefit businessmen and pals who secretly owned a racetrack.

Then a first-term state delegate from Baltimore went to federal prison on extortion charges. A year later, a federal jury found that the city's deputy director of public works had engaged in a long-running and lucrative scheme with a ring of contractors to rig bids on demolition jobs.

Finney was U.S. attorney for only three years in the 1970s, but they were jam-packed.

And there has been a rich history of political corruption since then — too many cases to list here — and many of the miscreants went to jail or prison. Most disappeared from public life. They never darkened our towels again. I mean, they kept their hands clean, pretty much. There are few repeat offenders.

Indictments, prison time, fines and disgrace apparently provided some deterrence. When I think back over this rogues' gallery, I can not think of one state elected official who ever got into trouble with the law twice — except Sen. Nathaniel Oaks of Baltimore.

Attention must be paid: Nat Oaks appears to have made some history. I checked with numerous sources — lawyers, journalists, a former press secretary, a political historian. We could not think, off the top of our cluttered heads, of one Maryland elected official who faced corruption charges more than once in his career.

In snooping around, we did find a local official in Prince George's County who was indicted twice in the 1960s and early 1970s for accepting bribes from contractors.

But someone who was elected to the General Assembly getting in hot water with the law twice? The Oaks case might be unprecedented.

Back in the 1980s —a decade marked by the savings and loan crisis and the indictment of Baltimore's City Council president on bribery charges — Oaks served in the Maryland House of Delegates. He was in his second term when, in 1989, he was found to have stolen $10,000 from his own campaign 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. Of course, he lost his seat in the House.

But within a few years, Oaks was back in the saddle. He made a political comeback — a rare but not unique occurrence in Maryland — and won election to the House in 1994. The people of his West Baltimore district forgave him. Many worked the polls for him on Election Day. "I had some people put down their drug habits to help me," Oaks told a Baltimore Sun reporter at the time. "They said, 'Hey, man. You got a good heart. I want to help you.'"

Oaks said his legal troubles had made him more mature, closer to God, and better attuned to the needs of struggling constituents in his district.

And so Oaks served all these years — 28 total — in Annapolis. He's now 70 years old. He moved from the House to the Senate this year after former Sen. Lisa Gladden gave up her seat for health reasons.

What happens? Last week, we get a criminal complaint from the U.S. attorney's office saying Oaks did a bad thing again. He's accused of "accepting illegal payments in exchange for using his official position or influence to benefit an individual on business-related matters." He allegedly took $15,300 in cash to help an out-of-town businessman interested in obtaining contracts in Baltimore through a minority-owned business. This businessman turned out to be what the feds call an "FBI confidential human source." There are tapes of conversations, and in federal cases that almost never benefits the defendant.

I know: Innocent until proved guilty. The feds have to make their case before we declare Oaks a repeat offender.

And don't overlook this: Oaks went nearly 30 years between allegations. Don't laugh. The people who voted for him probably think that's pretty good.

drodricks@baltsun.com

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