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Oaks leaves his mark in the annals of Maryland corruption

Sen. Nathaniel Oaks, center, along with his attorneys walk into federal court Tuesday.
Sen. Nathaniel Oaks, center, along with his attorneys walk into federal court Tuesday.(Kevin Richardson / Baltimore Sun)

By now there have been so many cases of political corruption in Maryland, you can understand why the sentencing judge in the Nat Oaks case took a minute Tuesday to determine if there was something unique about it.

Was history being made here?

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If not history, then at least trivia? Surely there must be something before the court besides an old-school pol who put his palm out for a cash bribe from an undercover FBI informant.

U.S. District Judge Richard D. Bennett, a former chief federal prosecutor for Maryland, seemed to be looking for the lede, as we say in the news biz.

I wish the judge had called upon me, but I was standing over by the coat rack in the corner of the packed courtroom, and I hadn’t filed an entry of appearance. I hadn’t passed the bar exam, either, and it was so hot I hadn’t worn a tie. I wasn’t presentable.

Still, I am quite familiar with the long list of Maryland corruption cases. I know this sordid history. My first day on the job for the bygone Evening Sun, an editor told me to go to federal court to help cover a trial. I asked who was on trial. The editor said, “The governor.”

Since then, I estimate having been present at the trials or sentencings of no fewer than 20 public officials.

So I stipulate myself an expert on Maryland corruption. And, based on that, I say there are two things unique about the Oaks case.

1. Oaks is the only person who twice had to leave the General Assembly because of misdeeds.

2. Oaks might be the one Maryland politician who agreed to cooperate with an investigation, only to turn around and sabotage it.

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Let me come back to that.

U.S. District Judge Richard D. Bennett also ordered Oaks to pay a $30,000 fine. The lawmaker pleaded guilty in March to accepting bribes from an undercover FBI informant.

First, a little background.

I don’t think it’s a stretch to say Maryland has one of the richest histories of political corruption in the country. I mean, the place is practically a petri dish for it. We’ve had politicians who became crooks and crooks who became politicians.

We’ve also had a long line of aggressive prosecutors who, with IRS and FBI agents, rooted out sleaze.

A lot of it has been of the classic variety: bribes for favors, kickbacks from government contracts. The run of that variety of corruption goes back to the 1960s, peaking in the 1970s when, within a relatively short period, a governor, a former governor, two county executives, a state’s attorney and a state delegate got into trouble and had to leave office; most of those defendants went to prison.

I could go on, so I will.

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There was a Baltimore City Council president who took bribes under a table in a Little Italy restaurant. There was a District Court judge who got caught taking bribes, too. There was a Baltimore mayor who had to leave office, a former congressman indicted, and a former state senator who went down on racketeering charges.

We’ve also seen schemes involving campaign money, and one of the violators was — wait for it — Oaks, then a member of the House of Delegates. He stole $10,000 from his own fund in the late 1980s. He was also convicted of perjury and misconduct in office. He got a five-year suspended sentence and performed 500 hours of community service. We thought he was done with politics.

But, five years later, Oaks ran for office and regained a seat in Annapolis.

What can I tell you? This is Smalltimore. A guy does enough favors for people, and they remember; they look right past his bad behavior and give him a second chance. Voters in Baltimore County did the same for one of their county executives, Dale Anderson, who won a seat in the House of Delegates after his time in prison, and his crimes were far worse than Oaks’.

Nearly 20 years ago, a federal judge declared the Maryland lawmakers and lobbyists tolerated a “culture of corruption,” and decried the State House as a “mess” in need of reform. Today, some say, not much has changed. 

But here we were again, Tuesday morning in the federal courthouse, a second seating for an Oaks sentencing.

I checked and could find only one Maryland politician who was indicted twice, and that was a local official in Prince George's County who took bribes from contractors in the 1960s and early 1970s.

Oaks got a second chance from voters and blew it. But double-dipping isn’t the only way he stands out.

Bennett — who by now looks like the president who nominated him for the bench in 2003, George W. Bush — wondered aloud if a cooperating witness had ever been caught sabotaging an investigation. The judge said that what Oaks did — he agreed to help the feds with their corruption investigation, then tipped off its target — was “extraordinarily unique” and unquestionably constituted obstruction of justice.

Bennett sentenced the 71-year-old Oaks to 3½ years in prison and ordered him to pay a $30,000 fine.

A lot of people will remember Oaks for the favors he did over the years. But, in the book I keep, he’ll be remembered for being doubly disgraced and for double-crossing the feds, and that’s not even history, really. That’s just tawdry trivia.

Ciao.

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