Lawyers for Maryland Sen. Nathaniel Oaks turned to a pivotal Supreme Court decision that tossed out a bribery conviction against a former Virginia governor to support their request for a federal judge to dismiss several corruption charges against the Baltimore Democrat.
Oaks was not acting in his official capacity as a state senator when he allegedly began a legislative process to award a $250,000 bond to a developer who had paid the lawmaker $5,000, lawyers argued Friday in U.S. District Court in Baltimore.
The Maryland U.S. attorney indicted Oaks, 71, last year on nine fraud and bribery counts related to seeking the bond bill in exchange for receiving the payment from the developer, who was actually an informant for the Federal Bureau of Investigation. The charges also say he took a total of $15,300 in bribes for providing help to other business owners as a state lawmaker.
Attorneys for Oaks argued that the lawmaker’s request that the Maryland Department of Legislative Services draft the bond bill was an administrative task that they compared to prosecutors typing up a criminal indictment without submitting it to a grand jury.
“The act is typing a document” and did not require “an exercise of governmental power,” said Rebecca S. Talbott, a federal assistant public defender representing Oaks.
Talbott cited the 2016 U.S. Supreme Court ruling in the case of former Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell. The case narrowed the definition of what constitutes an “official act” in bribery cases. The opinion said that merely organizing a meeting or events for a benefactor was not enough for prosecutors to charge the governor.
The former Virginia governor and his wife were convicted of accepting $175,000 in loans, gifts and other benefits from a businessman who wanted McDonnell to help have the state’s public universities perform research studies for the businessman’s company. Prosecutors alleged McDonnell committed five official acts, including arranging meetings, hosting events for the company at the Governor’s Mansion and contacting other government officials about the research studies. However, the Supreme Court ruled that prosecutors used too broad of a definition for what constituted an official action.
“Setting up a meeting, talking to another official, or organizing an event (or agreeing to do so) — without more — does not fit that definition of ‘official act,’ ” the opinion said. The decision has made it harder for federal prosecutors to bring corruption cases against public officials.
Maryland federal prosecutors argued, however, that Oaks’ request to the Department of Legislative Services was clearly an official act because it is a mandatory part of the official process for bond bills to attain a vote by the General Assembly.
“It’s the first stop,” and a necessary step to getting any bill before the Maryland legislature, said assistant U.S. Attorney Kathleen Gavin.
Former defense attorney Dale Kelberman, a former federal prosecutor who is not involved with the case, said Oaks may have a difficult time proving he was not acting in his role as a lawmaker. Having legislation drafted is considered a formal exercise for state legislators, he said.
“The government only has to show that he agreed to perform an official act. Asking the Department of Legislative Services [to write a bill] qualifies as an official public act. That’s what legislators do,” Kelberman said.
Also at Friday’s hearing, Oaks’ attorney withdrew a motion to provide jurors with a definition of entrapment. The senator’s lawyers have been arguing that the FBI entrapped Oaks after pursuing him relentlessly for years.
Bennett noted for the record that the withdrawal did not mean Oaks’ attorneys cannot make the entrapment argument at a later date.
“The point is, we don’t have to deal with this now,” the judge said.
Oaks’ other charges allege that he sent letters containing false statements on General Assembly stationery to someone he believed to be a federal housing official to help a “confidential source” obtain a federal grant. Prosecutors alleged that Oaks accepted $10,300 for his help.