Former Baltimore Sen. Nathaniel Oaks pleads guilty to corruption charges

Longtime Baltimore legislator Nathaniel T. Oaks pleaded guilty Thursday to federal corruption charges — just hours after the Democrat formally resigned his Senate seat in the Maryland General Assembly.

Oaks, 71, appeared in U.S. District Court in Baltimore with his lawyers for an hourlong hearing and admitted to a pair of felony fraud offenses.

Kathleen Gavin, the top federal corruption prosecutor in Maryland, recited a 17-page statement of facts describing how the former lawmaker took $15,300 in payments in exchange for aiding an FBI informant posing as an out-of-town developer.

When Gavin was done, Judge Richard D. Bennett asked Oaks if he had indeed committed the crimes.

“Yes,” Oaks replied.

The rapid turn of events — Oaks resigning and pleading guilty in the same morning — brought an abrupt end to a case that was weeks away from trial.

Sentencing has been scheduled for July 17. Federal guidelines call for Oaks to receive eight to 10 years in prison. As part of the plea agreement, eight other charges against Oaks will be dropped.

Stephen Schenning, the acting U.S. attorney for Maryland, said federal prosecutors and the FBI are on the lookout for corruption because it harms the public’s trust in government institutions.

“We hope that citizens see these kind of cases as an effort to make sure that people who hold the public trust and abuse it will be held accountable,” Schenning said.

Oaks said little during the hearing except to give yes or no answers to the judge’s questions. He declined to comment afterward.

Oaks had been scheduled to stand trial April 16.

He was charged in the final days of the 2017 General Assembly session and indicted last May on nine counts of fraud and bribery. The FBI set up a sting that led to Oaks meeting the informant over dinner in 2015. Oaks ultimately agreed to help the informant defraud the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development and draft a bond bill to aid a supposed housing project the informant wanted to carry out in Baltimore.

Then, in November, prosecutors brought an obstruction-of-justice charge against Oaks, alleging that he agreed to help the FBI only to sabotage the investigation by tipping off the target. He had been scheduled to stand trial on that charge in August.

While Oaks formally pleaded guilty to charges connected only to some of his dealings with the informant, he admitted in court to the broader statement of facts, including the obstruction allegations. Schenning said prosecutors felt it was important for Oaks admit to everything so the judge could consider the whole range of his wrongdoing when determining a sentence.

Oaks signed the 27-page plea agreement on Wednesday. The former lawmaker’s crimes center on his efforts in 2016 to help the informant secure federal grant funds and state bond money for a building project. Oaks admitted getting paid for sending a letter to HUD that contained falsehoods about his relationship with the informant, and getting paid again for a second letter that falsely said he had secured state funds for the project. In the fall of that year, Oaks, who was a state delegate at the time, had a $250,000 bond bill drafted in exchange for a third payment.

Oaks was aware of the risks he was taking, according to the plea agreement. The lawmaker spoke in code with the informant and purchased a prepaid cellphone to conduct business with him.

In January, FBI agents eventually confronted Oaks in a Baltimore hotel room, showing videos of him taking the payments. Oaks confessed on the spot and agreed to help them target a lobbyist. Oaks admitted that the lobbyist had paid for him to get hotel rooms and airline tickets to Las Vegas. But Oaks alerted the lobbyist to the FBI probe, scuttling an investigation that could have included “other politicians,” according to the plea agreement.

Until resigning at 9 a.m. Thursday, Oaks had continued to serve as one of Maryland’s 47 state senators amid calls from Democrats and Republicans, including Gov. Larry Hogan, that he step down.

On Wednesday evening Oaks submitted his letter of resignation to Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller. In his letter, Oaks wrote that he was resigning “to eliminate all clouds ... due to any potential concerns or questionable activities on my behalf.”

In the letter, he expressed “deep regret, respect, and my love for Baltimore City, the Maryland General Assembly, its leadership, my legislative colleagues and my constituents in the 41st District.

Former Sen. Lisa A. Gladden said “Baltimore deserves” better than Oaks. Gladden held the Senate seat for 14 years before her health forced her to resign and opened the way for Oaks to be appointed to it last year.

“Nat’s foolishness, it’s bad for all of us,” Gladden said.

Oaks’ lawyers had been battling prosecutors on the fraud and bribery charges, but their efforts yielded little success.

Earlier this month Bennett rejected Oaks’ request to dismiss several of the charges. His lawyers had argued that an allegation that Oaks had the bond bill drafted in exchange for a payment from the informant was not the kind of “official act” that violates federal corruption laws.

Bennett called the argument “without merit.”

“Drafting legislation lies at the very heart of a legislator’s official purpose,” Bennett wrote in his decision.

The plea agreement allows Oaks to file an appeal of that decision, but Bennett said Thursday that its outcome would have no effect on the plea or Oaks’ sentence.

Oaks’ lawyers had also accused federal authorities of entrapping the former lawmaker over the course of two years using a pair of informants. They called one informant a “professional set-up artist” who has collected a six-figure annual paycheck from the FBI.

Prosecutors rebutted that claim, disclosing transcripts of conversations with Oaks that informants recorded. Prosecutors said the transcripts made clear that Oaks willingly went along with the scheme. His lawyers ultimately withdrew their argument.

Baltimore Sun reporters Scott Dance and Michael Dresser contributed to this article.

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