After revelations in Oaks case, advocates urge lawmakers to avoid bail-bond industry lobbyists

After allegations surfaced last week in court filings that Sen. Nathaniel Oaks admitted taking a bribe from a representative of the bail-bond industry, criminal justice advocates urged Maryland lawmakers Wednesday to avoid contact with industry lobbyists.

The advocates held a news conference hours before the start of the 90-day General Assembly session to brand the bail-bond industry as untrustworthy. They called on lawmakers to return any contributions they have received from the industry and to refuse to sponsor the industry’s bills.

“We want any legislation put forward and supported by the bail-bond industry to be recognized as tainted, illegitimate and should not be considered,’ said Larry Stafford, executive director of Progressive Maryland.

Stafford, part of the Coalition for a Safe and Just Maryland, pointed to news accounts of a filing in the federal case against Oaks, a Baltimore Democrat who faces trial in April on federal charges of corruption and obstruction of justice.

Prosecutors alleged that Oaks received illegal payments from an unidentified “Person #1” to influence his vote and other efforts on behalf of bail-bond legislation. According to the filing, that person also made payments to at least one other elected official.

Caryn York, executive director of the Job Opportunities Task Force, warned that lawmakers who align themselves with the bail-bond industry risk being seen as tainted as well.

“It puts their own ethics and integrity in question,’ she said.

Barry Udoff, president of the Maryland Bail Bond Association, dismissed the advocates’ contentions as “unfair and ridiculous.”

“The bail bond association had nothing to do with Nat Oaks or anybody who had anything to do with Nat Oaks,” he said.

Udoff, who is also president of Fred Frank Bail Bonds and a lobbyist for the association, said the reports about Oaks had created doubts about him and his work.

“It was not me. I don’t know who it was,” Udoff said.

The advocates are seeking to preserve and build on a rule adopted by the Maryland Court of Appeals instructing judges to de-emphasize cash bail as a way to ensure that criminal defendants appear in court.

Earlier, Attorney General Brian E. Frosh had issued an opinion that a system under which some defendants remain in jail because they can’t afford cash bail would not survive a constitutional challenge.

Last year, the advocacy groups managed to beat back an attempt by the bail-bond industry to weaken the rule. After the industry won passage of a bill in the Senate, advocates blocked it in the House of Delegates with the help of the Legislative Black Caucus

Stafford, York and other advocates are anticipating that bail bondsmen will return this session. However, Udoff said it is uncertain whether there will be another battle.

Unlike last year, when the association employed a top Annapolis lobbying firm, so far the group has hired no outside lobbyists for this session, he said.

“We have no pre-filed legislation and we don’t have any plans to put legislation in,” Udoff said. “That doesn’t mean we couldn’t change our mind.”

Udoff said he was unhappy with how the rule has turned out. He said defense lawyers are complaining they are having a hard time getting some of their clients released who previously would have been given bail. Since the industry’s bill failed last year, business has suffered, he said.

“The industry is on its deathbed,” he said.

York said the system envisioned in the court rule won’t be complete until Maryland has pretrial services available in all of its 24 jurisdictions. Pretrial services programs provide supervision, treatment, counseling and structure to released defendants. She and other advocates are urging the legislature to promote such programs.

At a Legislative Black Caucus news conference following the bail event, chairman Del. Cheryl Glenn rejected the call to shun the bail-bond industry.

“We learn from everybody,” said Glenn, a Baltimore Democrat. “I’ve always had an open-door policy for everybody.”

The caucus has bail reform on its agenda for the session, saying it wants to reduce the financial burdens of the pretrial system. It was not clear Wednesday whether its goal conflicts with that of the coalition.

Oaks joined the caucus news conference after it started. Asked about the call to avoid the industry, he said he couldn’t comment on things he hadn’t heard about.

“Call my lawyer,’ he said.

Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller, an ally of the bail bondsmen in the fight for last year’s bill, also rejected the call to avoid industry representatives this year.

“One person allegedly made an illegal payment on behalf of an industry,” he said. “I don’t doubt that it happened, but everybody’s entitled to a voice here.”

mdresser@baltsun.com

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