Baltimore Sen. Nathaniel T. Oaks, who is facing federal corruption charges, has been removed from his committee positions in the Maryland Senate, an unusual disciplinary action that strips Oaks of the type of influence he’s accused of abusing.
The removal announced Monday night is the most severe punishment Senate leaders can take without a finding of wrongdoing from an ethics committee investigation.
Federal prosecutors allege Oaks took cash bribes from an informant posing as a businessman in exchange for help getting government grants. Oaks has pleaded not guilty, and his lawyers say in court documents says he was entrapped by a prolonged federal dragnet trying to push Baltimore public officials into corruption.
The Joint Committee on Legislative Ethics recommended that Oaks lose his seat on the Finance Committee now “in recognition of our duty to protect the public trust,” according to a confidential Feb. 22 letter from the committee to Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller.
“It’s the only course of action they can take,” Miller said of the ethics panel, which is made up of 12 senior state lawmakers.
Miller said that Oaks would lose his other committee positions in the coming days.
He said he was not aware of more severe action he could mete out against Oaks unless there was a full investigation into the allegations against him.
The legislature’s ethics panel launched such an inquiry in January, but suspended the investigation earlier this month after federal prosecutors said it would be “prudent” to wait until the conclusion of Oaks’ trial in April.
After the trial concludes, the ethics panel plans to resume its inquiry, which could lead to Oaks removal from office.
Oaks, 71, was absent from the chamber when the action was announced. Miller said he suggested that Oaks take an excused absence “rather than be a spectacle.”
Oaks could not immediately be reached for comment Monday night, and declined to comment Tuesday on being removed from the committee.
Federal prosecutors allege Oaks took $15,300 in cash bribes from an informant posing as a Texas investor in a Baltimore painting and construction company. Prosecutors allege Oaks took the money in exchange for helping get the businessman government grants and other assistance.
Oaks also is charged with obstruction of justice for allegedly sabotaging another undercover investigation by tipping off the target. He will be tried separately on that count in August.
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In its letter, the ethics committee said it reviewed allegations made by prosecutors and other court filings, and concluded Oaks could have violated state ethics laws in several ways: misuse of public resources, misuse of the prestige of his office, improperly accepting gifts, conflicts of interests, failure to make certain disclosures and failure to register as a lobbyist.
The committee said that Oaks faces up to 20 yeas in prison and would automatically be suspended from office if convicted.
Oaks, a Democrat, filed for re-election on Friday. He faces one opponent in the Democratic primary — J.D. Merrill, a former Baltimore schoolteacher and administrator and the son-in-law of former Gov. Martin O’Malley.
Oaks was appointed to the Maryland Senate in January 2017. He was first elected to the House of Delegates in 1982, and served until 1989 when he was convicted of stealing thousands of dollars out his campaign account. He regained his seat in the 1994 election, and served in the House until he was appointed to a vacant post in the Senate. His salary as a state senator is $50,330 a year.
Oaks is the second sitting state lawmaker stripped of a committee assignment in the past four years. House Speaker Michael E. Busch removed former De. Don Dwyer from all House committees after Dwyer’s second alcohol-related conviction.