As calls grow for Oaks to resign, Senate president refers case to Ethics Committee

As more politicians called for state Sen. Nathaniel T. Oaks to resign, Maryland Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller said he plans to refer federal charges against Oaks to the General Assembly’s Ethics Committee — a move that could be the first step in Oaks’ removal.

“I would imagine the ethics committee will begin meeting on the subject sometime next week,” Miller, a Democrat, said Tuesday.

Many Republicans — and a few Democrats — are calling on Oaks, a Democrat, to resign amid new court filings in which the FBI contends he confessed to taking bribes. Oaks is fighting the charges, and is expected to attend the first day of the 2018 Maryland General Assembly session on Wednesday.

At a news conference Tuesday, Gov. Larry Hogan highlighted the charges against Oaks as an example of a culture of corruption that he said exists in some corners of Maryland politics.

“That senator shamefully will still be on the floor of the Senate when the legislative session begins tomorrow,” said Hogan, a Republican. “What’s worse, legislative leaders have been defending his presence there.”

Oaks did not respond to a request for comment.

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

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.

Federal prosecutors 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.

Republicans pounced on the case Tuesday.

Maryland Republican Party Chairman Dirk Haire called the charges against Oaks “an embarrassment to our state.”

“The only taxpayer dollars going to support corrupt Senator Oaks should be for room and board behind bars,” he said.

Hogan said he believes Oaks should not take his seat in Annapolis on Wednesday.

“I think he should have been out of the Senate last year when these charges came out,” Hogan said. “I do not believe he should be sworn in. He should not be starting the session. Quite frankly, I do not agree with the legislative leaders who have a different opinion. What should have happened immediately last year is the Senate president should have called a Joint Committee on [Legislative] Ethics together and they should have removed him from office.”

But many Democrats in Annapolis said they would wait to see how the process plays out before calling on Oaks to resign.

House Speaker Michael Busch, House Appropriations chairwoman Maggie McIntosh, state Sen. Nathaniel McFadden and others said Oaks should decide for himself whether he should resign.

“There is a process,” said Del. Cheryl D. Glenn, a Baltimore Democrat who is chairwoman of the Legislative Black Caucus. “When you are elected to office, nobody can force you to step down. You can resign on your own, but it’s not something you can be forced to do.”

Even though he called for an ethics investigation, Miller said he believed it could be unfair to remove Oaks from office before his April trial.

“He’s cloaked in a shroud of innocence right now,” Miller said. “To do something now, to try him now in the papers, would be unfair to the jurors in the case, it would be unfair to Senator Oaks, it would be unfair to everyone else.

Ethics committee investigations can result in a vote of the Senate to remove a sitting senator, Miller’s staff said. If the committee’s investigation decides Oaks should be removed, it would then be up to the entire Senate to vote him out.

A Maryland legislator has been expelled from the General Assembly only once before in modern history: Baltimore Sen. Larry Young was expelled from the Senate 1998 for using his public office for private gain.

Before Oaks’ most recent federal filing, Miller had taken the position that the Ethics Committee could not proceed while Oaks’ trial was pending.

Federal documents released in court last week allege that Oaks confessed to the bribery. Miller told The Baltimore Sun on Tuesday that he wants advice from the committee on how to proceed with Oaks while he awaits trial. Two Democrats seeking the governor’s mansion joined Republicans in calls for Oaks to resign.

Former NAACP head Ben Jealous and tech entrepreneur Alec Ross both said he should go.

“Based on what has been presented thus far, I believe Senator Oaks should resign,” Jealous said. “These allegations are troubling and hinder his ability to be an effective advocate for Baltimore City at a time when the city’s residents are grappling with crumbling infrastructure and too many deaths from gun violence and the opioid epidemic.”

It was the second year in a row the General Assembly has opened under a cloud of corruption.

Last January, the state prosecutor charged Baltimore Democrat Gary Brown with campaign finance violations days before Brown was to have been sworn in as a delegate.

And just as the session began, former Prince George's County Del. William Campos, a Democrat, pleaded guilty in a sprawling corruption case that authorities said involved cash payments in exchange for advancing legislation related to liquor licenses.

In March, former Prince George's Democratic Del. Michael Vaughn was indicted in the same case. Vaughn had resigned from the House less than an hour before last year's session began, citing health issues.

A coalition of bail reform advocates planned a news conference for Wednesday morning to “demand that lawmakers take decisive action in response to news that bail-bonds industry lobbyists offered illegal cash bribes to Sen. Nathaniel Oaks ... and at least one other elected official.”

Last week’s government filing alleged that someone with ties to the bail bonds industry 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.

Oaks’ attorneys said in their rebuttal to the government’s filings that Oaks’ alleged confessions were not recorded by the FBI, an omission they called “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 argued.

Baltimore Sun reporters Michael Dresser and Justin Fenton contributed to this article.

lbroadwater@baltsun.com

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