At his bench in the federal courthouse, U.S. District Judge Richard D. Bennett read a long list of Maryland politicians convicted of corruption: Dale Anderson. Tommy Bromwell. Jack Johnson. The litany went on.
Now the judge had another name to add. On Tuesday, Bennett ordered former Maryland Sen. Nathaniel T. Oaks to serve 3½ years in federal prison after pleading guilty to corruption charges. Oaks must pay a $30,000 fine, and his prison sentence will be followed by three years of supervised release, the judge said.
“We’ve had many cases in this state with respect to bribes and kickbacks of public officials, and I’m afraid we may have more,” Bennett lamented.
Oaks resigned from his Maryland General Assembly seat in March and pleaded guilty to two felony fraud charges. He admitted to taking $15,300 from the FBI informant, who posed as an out-of-town developer and enlisted Oaks in a scheme to defraud the federal government.
State Sen. Jill P. Carter won the Democratic primary in June to replace Oaks.
Before he was sentenced, Oaks, 71, apologized and said he took responsibility for his wrongdoing.
“I would like to apologize to my family and my constituents,” he said. “I take full responsibility. I’m broken, hurt, disappointed.”
The Baltimore Democrat, who was dressed in a tan suit, also said he was running out of medication for his diabetes.
“I ran out of most of my medications because I lost my job and I don’t have health insurance,” he said.
Oaks was charged in the final days of the 2017 General Assembly session and later indicted on nine counts of fraud and bribery. The FBI had 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 to 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. Oaks had been scheduled to stand trial on that charge in August.
Assistant U.S. Attorney Kathleen Gavin, who prosecuted Oaks, requested a five-year prison sentence. In court Tuesday, she called Oaks “carefully corrupt.”
“These words define the defendant in this case,” Gavin said. “He was profoundly corrupt and he was exceedingly careful in his corrupt ways.”
Gavin pushed back on suggestions from Oaks supporters that he simply made a mistake. She said he bragged of accepting expensive wines and free trips to Las Vegas from lobbyists. Oaks used a “burner phone” to talk to his “corrupt partner,” Gavin said.
“This wasn’t a lapse in judgment,” she said. “This was a way of life for defendant Nathaniel Oaks. … If a person wanted something from him, they should come bearing gifts.”
Garvin urged Bennett to “send a message” to other politicians who might consider accepting bribes or kickbacks.
“You really need to send a message that you’re going to get really punished,” she said.
Oaks’ lawyer, Lucius T. Outlaw III, acknowledged that the legislator “betrayed his office for money, plain and simple.”
But Outlaw said Oaks’ crime was relatively small compared to other corruption cases. The lawyer cited the case of former Virginia Gov. Robert McDonnell, who was sentenced to two years in prison after receiving lavish gifts in office totaling $175,000. The U.S. Supreme Court threw out that conviction.
Outlaw said there is a “feeling that is growing” that justice is “not equally applied.”
He said Oaks was instrumental in working on issues such as reducing lead poisoning in Baltimore children.
“Baltimore is now at record lows for lead poisoning,” Outlaw said. “You can’t say that outcome is not tied to Nathaniel Oaks.”
Oaks’ lawyers had previously 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.
Oaks’ supporters — including five former state lawmakers, a former Baltimore police commissioner and a civil rights leader — submitted letters to the judge asking for leniency.
Former Del. Clarence "Tiger" Davis told the judge of Oaks’ work on behalf of veterans and the Maryland National Guard, breaking up the “racist old boy network in Maryland.”
Davis told Bennett that Oaks still can be a benefit to society. He called a prison term for him a “death sentence.”
“We need Nathaniel Oaks,” Davis said.
Former Del. Salima Marriott called Oaks an “advocate for the people.”
But when she said she felt Oaks was “entrapped” by the FBI, Bennett objected.
“I totally reject that,” the judge said. “He was not entrapped. He pled guilty.”
As Oaks left the courtroom, he declined to comment to reporters. He told supporters to meet him at a nearby restaurant for lunch.
Bennett said he has to report to prison in September. The federal Bureau of Prisons will determine where he is placed.
Bennett said he was rejecting federal guidelines, which called for a penalty of eight to 10 years’ imprisonment.
“The guidelines in this case do not appear to be germane,” he said.
But Bennett said he could not tolerate Oaks’ interference with an FBI investigation. The judge cited a letter written in support of Oaks by former Baltimore Police Commissioner Leonard Hamm that called the lawmaker’s actions “dastardly” and “despicable.”
“You single-handledly knocked out a whole investigation,” the judge said.