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Lawyers for Maryland Senator Oaks say he was entrapped by FBI in public corruption case

State Sen. Nathaniel T. Oaks is charged with taking cash payments from an FBI source, as well as obstruction of justice.
State Sen. Nathaniel T. Oaks is charged with taking cash payments from an FBI source, as well as obstruction of justice.

Lawyers for indicted state Sen. Nathaniel T. Oaks argue in a new court filing that the FBI entrapped their client after pursuing him relentlessly for years.

“The government hatched, designed, and engineered a crime in this case, and then spent more than two years in a coordinated, unrelenting, and multifaceted campaign to try to induce Senator Oaks to commit it,” wrote federal public defenders Lucius T. Outlaw III and Rebecca S. Talbott, who represent Oaks.

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The filing sheds new light on the breadth of the federal investigation. According to the defense lawyers, documents provided by federal prosecutors make clear that they also pursued Baltimore City Council members and used a former high-ranking county official to secretly record politicians.

Federal prosecutors declined to comment on the filing.

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Oaks, a Baltimore Democrat, is accused of taking $15,300 in cash payments from an FBI source he believed to be a wealthy businessman from Texas called Mike Henley.

In addition, Oaks is charged with obstruction of justice after becoming a government cooperator and then allegedly tipping off the target of an investigation.

Federal prosecutors have said that Oaks confessed to taking money and upending the second investigation, charges Oaks is now contesting as he continues to sit in Annapolis as a state senator.

A federal judge ruled in favor of giving state Sen. Nathaniel Oaks two separate trials on fraud and obstruction of justice charges stemming form a corruption investigation.

The latest filing suggests the FBI investigation was longer and more widespread than previously known.

The defense lawyers say the government investigation into Oaks began sometime prior to July 2014, when someone described only as a “former senior county executive aide” became a confidential source in an “investigation of corruption in Baltimore government and the Maryland legislature.” The filing does not identify the county executive the source worked for.

According to the filing, the source provided to the FBI the names of people in Maryland politics, including Oaks, that the source believed might be susceptible to bribery. The source began working in an undercover capacity, secretly recording conversations with members of the Maryland legislature, the Baltimore City Council, lobbyists and business elites, the defense lawyers said.

They said the undercover efforts first focused on a now-former member of the Baltimore City Council, who is not identified.

The documents say that the source met with the council member, saying he was affiliated with a minority-owned business seeking to get contracts with Baltimore City.

In August of 2014, the source secretly recorded a breakfast meeting with Oaks and the unnamed council member during the Maryland Association of Counties conference in Ocean City, the documents say. The source allegedly told Oaks and the council member that Baltimore City Council President Bernard C. “Jack” Young had already met with the company president.

“There was no discussion of the City Council President or Senator Oaks being compensated for any assistance,” the documents say.

Following the Ocean City meeting, the source pursued setting up a follow-up meetings with Oaks, but the politician did not express interest in such a relationship, according to his lawyers.

A lawyer for indicted state Sen. Nathaniel Oaks apologized in court Thursday for saying in court papers that federal prosecutors had tried to "smear" his client.

As the investigation continued, the source in September 2014 set up a breakfast meeting with an unnamed developer. The source allegedly told the FBI the developer made comments about both Young and Oaks that the source said indicated the developer had a history of bribing public officials, according to Oaks’ lawyers.

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Federal prosecutors have not accused Young of any wrongdoing.

In a written statement released Monday, Young staunchly denied any wrongdoing, saying he routinely meets with business leaders to try to bring economic development to Baltimore.

“As a member of the Baltimore City Council, one of my key duties is supporting economic development in the City,” Young said. “During my time on the Council, I have met with countless developers and companies interested in bringing business and development projects to our city. My practice has been to pair them with the appropriate city agencies, which are able to determine appropriate next steps. That has been the extent of my involvement.”

The source continued to unsuccessfully pursue Oaks at the government’s behest, according to his lawyers.

By February 2015, after “one-and-a-half years of concentrated efforts as a government undercover source, the source had been able to secure only a few meetings with Senator Oaks, and none had produced anything incriminating,” Oaks’ lawyers wrote. “Yet rather than leaving Senator Oaks alone, the government instead heightened the pressure, by recruiting the assistance of a close friend of the senator’s to their efforts.”

In late August 2015, the source tried to persuade Bruce Crockett, a Baltimore businessman and friend of Oaks who has since died, to convince Oaks to meet with the FBI informant known as “Mike Henley.”

In the wake of recent allegations that Sen. Nathaniel Oaks took bribes from bail bondsmen, criminal justice advocates urge lawmakers to refuse to meet with meet with industry lobbyists.

Over the next five months, Oaks and Henley held meetings and communicated about Henley’s interest in developing properties and building affordable housing in economically distressed parts of Baltimore.

Finally, on March 16, 2016, “nearly two years after the government’s investigation started intensely targeting Senator Oaks, Mr. Henley raised the idea of paying Senator Oaks for his assistance,” the lawyers wrote.”

“In spite of continuing frequent conversations, it was not until nearly two months after that that Mr. Henley first paid Senator Oaks an alleged bribe,” according to the lawyers.

Outlaw and Talbott wrote that the government’s behavior in the case “went beyond mere solicitation, and crossed over into inducement … the government, undeterred by Senator Oaks’s repeated demurrals, was unwilling to accept ‘no’ for an answer, and instead employed dogged and extraordinary insistence to recruit Senator Oaks to its criminal scheme.”

The lawyers wrote that their account is supported by a document provided by federal authorities that is currently under seal. Oaks’ trial on the fraud charges is scheduled to begin on April 16. The judge granted him a separate trial on the obstruction charge.

In a previous court filing, Oaks' lawyers said the investigation that ultimately led to the charges against the senator was part of a "dragnet" probe of the Baltimore City Council.

After that document became public, Young said he was not aware of any investigation.

"I don't know why he would say that, there ain't nobody on the City Council done anything to be dragged into no net," Young said.

Young said he had "no idea" whether he was the target of an investigation but said he had no reason to think he would be.

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"Only way you'd be a target is if you'd done something illegal and I haven’t done anything illegal, so I doubt it," he said.

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