Nearly 20 years ago, a federal judge declared that Maryland lawmakers were tolerating a “culture of corruption” — and decried the State House as a “mess” in need of reform.
Today, some say, not much has changed.
When longtime Baltimore legislator Nathaniel T. Oaks was convicted of corruption in office for a second time Thursday, he was the latest in a long line of Maryland politicians who violated laws meant to ensure ethical government. The state has seen a governor, a vice president, several county executives and a mayor brought low after political corruption investigations.
Some of those political players have resurfaced and now occupy prominent roles once again in Maryland politics.
“Maryland has a long history of politicians taking advantage of the office and doing things to benefit themselves,” says Todd Eberly, an associate professor of political science at St. Mary's College who teaches a class on corruption in Maryland. “There really isn’t a sense that there is a price to pay. If someone were to look at Maryland, they would conclude there is very little being done to cause politicians to fear maximizing their own advantage.”
Oaks, 71, pleaded guilty Thursday to federal charges of accepting bribes from an FBI informant who posed as a businessman. His conviction came just hours after the Democrat formally resigned from the state Senate.
It was the second corruption case against Oaks, who was convicted in 1989 of stealing more than $10,000 from his campaign account while he was a member of the House of Delegates. He also was convicted of perjury and misconduct in office. He got a five-year suspended sentence and was ordered to perform 500 hours of community service.
“I can’t forgive him,” said former City Councilwoman Rochelle “Rikki” Spector, who sits on the Democratic Central Committee for Oaks’ district and must vote on a replacement. She said she regrets casting a ballot to promote Oaks to fill an open Senate seat. “Look how embarrassing he is.”
From 1964 to 1977, at least 16 elected officials in Maryland were convicted of, or pleaded no contest to, a variety of crimes, almost all of which stemmed from political corruption investigations, according to Eberly’s research.
- Former Baltimore County Executive Dale Anderson, who was convicted of 32 counts of extortion, conspiracy and tax evasion.
- Then-Vice President Spiro Agnew, the former Maryland governor who pleaded no contest to tax evasion stemming from a federal grand jury investigation of kickbacks in Baltimore County.
- Marvin Mandel, who as governor was convicted of 17 counts of mail fraud and a racketeering charge. Mandel’s conviction was eventually overturned.
To try to crack down on corruption, the State Ethics Commission was created in 1979. It requires financial disclosure filings by public officials and lobbyists and monitors potential conflicts of interest.
But the corruption cases continued.
From 1994 to 2000, powerful lobbyists Bruce Bereano and Gerard Evans were convicted of fraud, but have since returned to lobby in Annapolis. Bereano made nearly $1.8 million last year lobbying in the General Assembly, while Evans made nearly $2 million.
In sentencing Evans to 2 ½ years in prison for defrauding clients, U.S. District Judge J. Frederick Motz said Evans "took advantage of a culture of corruption that has been tolerated by lobbyists, legislators and the citizens of Maryland.”
“I don’t really see that things have changed a whole lot,” former Assistant U.S. Attorney Dale Kelberman, who prosecuted Evans,said Thursday. “Prosecutions help to do some deterrence. But there’s some people you can’t get to. Sometimes greed gets the better of people.”
But Kelberman said he doesn’t believe Maryland is more corrupt than elsewhere.
“Public officials are no different from the rest of society,” he said. “You have bad police officers, although the majority are good. You have bad dentists, although the majority are good. You have bad public officials, although the majority are good.”
In recent years, high-profile public corruption cases have been brought against Sheila Dixon, Baltimore’s first sitting mayor to be indicted; former Prince George’s County Executive Jack Johnson, who was convicted of accepting over $1 million in bribes; former Prince George’s Delegate Tiffany Alston, who was indicted on charges of stealing campaign contributions to pay for her wedding; and former Anne Arundel County Executive John R. Leopold, who was indicted on multiple counts of official misconduct.
Dixon finished as a close runner-up in 2016’s crowded race for Baltimore mayor, garnering nearly 50,000 votes.
Leopold is seeking a return to office as well, running this year for state delegate.
In 2015, the Center for Public Integrity rated Maryland's anti-public corruption safeguards as a D.
Last year, after prosecutors brought charges against more Maryland lawmakers, the General Assembly — led by House Speaker Michael E. Busch and Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller — passed several ethics reforms, including laws that required additional conflict-of-interest disclosures, increased the penalty for bribery, and prohibited lawmakers from steering legislation to benefit businesses they own.
This year, Gov. Larry Hogan introduced a series of bills he said would promote a better climate in government, including legislation to require all sessions of the Maryland General Assembly to be live-streamed; bills calling for redistricting reform and term limits for state lawmakers; and a proposal to create an investigator general to probe corruption in school systems across the state. The latter followed the perjury conviction of former Baltimore County schools superintendent Dallas Dance.
Those bills are stalled or have been killed.
Christopher B. Shank, Hogan’s chief legislative officer, said each of the proposals would help change the culture in Annapolis.
“A lack of transparency lends itself to this environment where some of these things are happening,” he said.
Damon Effingham, the acting director of the good government organization Common Cause Maryland, said the state should take steps to get as much big money out of politics as possible.
He said corruption cases like Oaks’ often arise when business interests at first attempt to influence the political process legally — and then turn to illegal actions.
“I wouldn’t say we’re worse than other states,” he said. “The vast majority of the legislators are on the up and up.”
But he said the General Assembly should be doing more. “There are ways for them to reduce the influence of lobbyists,” he said.
Mileah Kromer, director of the Sarah T. Hughes Field Politics Center at Goucher College, said in a heavily Democratic state like Maryland, voters need to turn out more often for primary elections that can effectively determine who holds office.
Ultimately, she said, it’s up to the people of Maryland to vote for the government they want.
“The only real solution for combating corruption is more widespread voter engagement,” Kromer said. “In a lot of these places you don’t even have a lot of choice. There are uncontested races going on right now. To vote somebody out of office, there has to be a choice.”