Under pressure from a federal judge, a lawyer for indicted Maryland Sen. Nathaniel Oaks apologized in court Thursday for saying in legal filings that federal prosecutors had tried to “smear” his client.
Lucius Outlaw, a federal public defender, initially tried to explain to the judge why he thought it was improper for prosecutors to describe a pair of confessions they say Oaks made while he was under investigation for corruption. But when Judge Richard Bennett rejected that explanation, Outlaw appeared to begin to apologize.
The judge jumped in.
“No one is trying to smear anyone here,” Bennett said. “The court will accept your apology.”
The substance of Thursday’s hearing was a bid by Oaks’ lawyers to break the case against him into two parts. The Baltimore senator was initially charged with fraud over allegations that he took bribes from an FBI informant. But in a subsequent indictment, prosecutors charged Oaks with obstruction of justice, saying he had agreed to work as a source against someone — referred to only as “Person #1” — but then tipped off the target, sabotaging the investigation.
Oaks pleaded not guilty Thursday to the allegations in the new indictment. The senator stood with his hands behind his back as the judge read the indictment.
Recent court filings revealed several details about the FBI’s investigation. Federal prosecutors said that the target Oaks agreed to cooperate against was someone advocating for the bail bonds industry in Annapolis last year, at a time when bondsmen were facing new laws that could have cut back their business.
In the same filing, prosecutors said Oaks admitted to having a corrupt relationship with an FBI informant posing as a Texas businessman and that Oaks admitted later to tipping off the bail bonds advocate. According to the documents, agents confronted their target and he confessed, saying he’d long had a relationship with Oaks and had bribed at least one other elected official.
In response, Oaks’ lawyers wrote that the level of detail in the filing amounted to a “pre-trial smear job.”
But in court Thursday, Bennett said the allegations likely would have come out before the trial in one way or another and that nothing in the filings “warrants that kind of language.”
“I’m trying to remind you of the civility of our practice,” the judge told Outlaw. “Senator Oaks is not being treated differently to any other defendant.”
Oaks’ lawyers say it’s unfair for the obstruction charge and the fraud charges to go in front of a jury as one, but prosecutors say there’s enough in common between the two to hold a single trial. Oaks is scheduled to be tried April 16, after the conclusion of this year’s General Assembly session in Annapolis, where the senator continues to represent his district.
Bennett said he would rule quickly on whether to separate the charges, potentially as early as Friday.
Oaks’ lawyers have said that the case against their client stemmed from a much broader corruption probe looking at members of the Baltimore City Council and state lawmakers. No one else has been charged. On Wednesday they asked the judge to carry out special screening of prospective jurors to make sure they are not biased.
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A new detail pointing to the breadth of the investigation emerged Thursday: Prosecutors said that the FBI was aware of Person #1 before Oaks described him in his first alleged confession.
Gov. Larry Hogan and other Republicans have called on Oaks to resign his Senate seat, to which he was appointed last year to fill a vacancy after serving in the House of Delegates.
Most of Oaks’ Democratic colleagues in Annapolis have not joined those calls. Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller referred the allegations against Oaks to the General Assembly’s ethics committee.
A disclosure filed by Oaks’ campaign Thursday suggests he is preparing to contest his election. The senator held a fundraiser at a golf course last week described as marking the 21st anniversary of his 50th birthday. He has raised $5,500 in the last year and has $123,000 in his campaign account, a relatively small sum for a senator facing a contested race.
J. D. Merrill, the son-in-law of former Gov. Martin O’Malley, has said he will seek the seat.
As he walked out of court, Oaks was asked whether he would resign.
He pointed to Outlaw, who declined to comment.