As a Texas businessman allegedly handed cash to state Sen. Nathaniel Oaks, he also passed along some advice about how the Baltimore Democrat could keep their meeting secret.
“You know how to handle yourself,” the Texan said, according to transcripts of the recorded encounter filed in federal court. “But I would not be puttin’ this money on a regular basis in my [banking] account.”
“That’s right,” Oaks said, according to the transcripts.
The businessman had no real interest in hiding their meeting: He was an FBI informant.
The transcripts, filed in U.S. District Court in Baltimore, detail conversations prosecutors say Oaks had with two informants. Prosecutors are using them to support fraud charges stemming from allegations that Oaks took payments in exchange for helping the businessman obtain government grants and other help.
The alleged cash exchange, on May 11, 2016, in a Baltimore hotel room, had been almost two years in the making, according to court records filed by the Maryland U.S. Attorney’s office. The records detail how the federal informants attempted to draw the state senator into the alleged scheme. According to charging documents, he eventually took some $15,000 in cash.
The charges say that Oaks sought “to enrich himself by accepting cash payments in exchange for making false and fraudulent representations” to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development to help the Texan obtain federal grant money for an affordable housing project in Baltimore.
Oaks, 71, has pleaded not guilty. He continues to serve in the state legislature and filed to run for re-election Friday. His lawyers argue that the FBI entrapped Oaks by relentlessly pursuing him using undercover informants over several years.
Federal officials allege that Oaks was a willing participant in the scheme to help the Texan, who held himself out as a wealthy investor in a Baltimore painting and building company.
Oaks is scheduled for trial on the fraud charges in April. He also faces a separate obstruction of justice charge over allegations that he agreed to cooperate with the FBI only to sabotage another investigation. On Friday a trial was scheduled for August on those charges.
The new files depict Oaks as deeply cautious in his conversations with the Texan. He often spoke in a code that involved lollipops, prosecutors allege. And he repeatedly worried out loud about whether the authorities might be listening, the records show.
Another informant — described in a filing by Oaks’ lawyers as a former aide to an unidentified county executive in Maryland — approached Oaks at a Maryland Association of Counties meeting in Ocean City in August 2014.
Like the Texan, the aide also presented himself as being connected to the painting and building company.
The aide told Oaks that the company needed help winning government contracts, court records show. In addition, the aide told Oaks, investors with the company had a history of being generous.
“They have helped me before financially when I needed things,” the informant said, according to a transcript of the Ocean City meeting included in the court records. “They’re big ticket guys.”
Oaks stayed in contact with the aide into 2015, according to prosecutors. The senator’s lawyers have said that Oaks was reluctant to remain in touch but that he was pressured to do so.
In September 2015 the county executive aide introduced Oaks to the Texas businessman, who said his name was Mike Henley, over dinner at the Ruth’s Chris Steak House in Pikesville, court records state. The three developed an instant rapport, according to a transcript of the meeting.
“You know, two hours went by and we don’t even discuss any business?” Oaks said to the other men, according to the transcript.
Henley explained to Oaks that he was looking to carry out development projects in the city, according to court records.
The two men then spent a day together in November that began with breakfast at Jimmy’s Diner in Fells Point. They drove around the city looking for development properties while Oaks placed calls trying to find ways to help Henley, according to court records.
In December, Oaks mentioned to Henley that he didn’t have any money, according to the transcript.
“Politicians should never talk about their bein’ broke around aspiring developers,” Henley said jokingly.
In a March conversation, Oaks is recorded as explaining to Henley the perils of a politician trying to get rich.
“The point I’m makin’ is that when you go into this, you can help some folk and you can live comfortably,” Oaks said, according to a transcript. “Or you think you can help the world and then, … you gonna have one little son-of-a-bitches in there working for the FBI or somethin’ like that….
“When you planning on playing, you gotta watch who you gettin’ in bed with,” Oaks said, according to the transcript.
By April 2016, Henley was asking Oaks for help writing a letter to a federal housing official to show that Henley’s proposed project had support in the community. Prosecutors said the letter contained lies about the men’s relationship.
In a call about the letter later that month, an undercover FBI agent posing as the federal housing official asked Oaks whether he had known Henley for 20 years.
Yes, Oaks said, according to prosecutors.
The same day, Oaks and Henley allegedly agreed how to compensate the lawmaker for his help. The moment was not captured on audio tape, prosecutors say. An FBI agent described how the men allegedly arrived at the deal in a memo contained in court records.
“Oaks took out a Tootsie pop with a chocolate wrapper and placed it in his mouth with the wrapper still on,” the memo said — a move the informant took to mean Oaks didn’t want to talk about it, the agent wrote.
Henley held up five fingers to signify $5,000, the memo said. According to prosecutors, the exchange of that money took place two weeks later in the hotel room where the Texan warned of the need to hide the payment.