By William F. Zorzi
Maryland State Sen. Nathaniel T. Oaks, currently under indictment in a federal public corruption case, was stripped of his seat on the Senate Finance Committee Monday night, after a recommendation from the Joint Committee on Legislative Ethics.
The ethics committee recommended to Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr. that Oaks be removed from his committee assignments, pending the outcome of his federal trial on fraud charges, scheduled to begin April 16, and the committee’s own investigation afterwards.
“The committee is extremely concerned about the seriousness of the allegations, as well as their impact on the confidence of Maryland’s citizens in their government officials and the Maryland General Assembly,” the ethics committee letter to Miller stated.
“Therefore, the committee recommend that you remove Senator Oaks from all of his committee assignments pending the outcome of the federal trial and subsequent committee actions,” said the letter, dated Feb. 22.
The full text of the letter, which was marked “Confidential,” was read into the Senate record, followed by a message from Miller: “Pursuant to the recommendation of the Joint Committee on Legislative Ethics, Sen. Nathaniel T. Oaks is hereby removed from the Finance Committee.”
That was all that was said on the subject during the floor session. Oaks was not present in the chamber Monday night.
Oaks, a Democrat representing West Baltimore’s District 41, is also a member of the Joint Committee of on Administrative, Executive and Legislative Review, which examines proposed state regulations.
Oaks is charged in a 10-count indictment with fraud and obstruction of justice.
Nine fraud charges are related to allegations that Oaks took $15,300 in a bribery scheme involving an FBI confidential source, known as “Mike Henley,” who posed as a Texas businessman wanting to do business in Baltimore. At that point in time, Oaks was unaware of the federal investigation; it was only later, when he became aware of the probe, that he agreed to work with investigators.
The single obstruction count stems from allegations that while Oaks was supposed to be cooperating with federal investigators, he tipped off a target in the bail-bonds industry, known only as “Person #1” in court papers, to the existence of a corruption probe.
Federal public defenders for Oaks earlier this year convinced a U.S. District Court judge to separate the obstruction of justice trial from a trial on the other nine counts. That second trial is now set for Aug. 20.
Oaks has pleaded not guilty to all the charges.
Miller referred the matter to the ethics committee Jan. 11, asking the panel to take up the Oaks matter, after calls for his removal by a growing number of Republicans, including Gov. Lawrence J. Hogan Jr.
In turn, the ethics committee co-chairs, Sen. James E. DeGrange Sr., an Anne Arundel County Democrat, and Del. Adrienne A. Jones, a Baltimore County Democrat, wrote to U.S. Attorney’s office Jan. 25, asking whether the legislature’s investigation would hamper the federal trial.
Stephen M. Schenning, the acting U.S. attorney, responded in a Feb. 7 letter, recommending that the Joint Ethics Committee “hold its investigation in abeyance until the federal charges are resolved.”
Miller had Schenning’s letter read into the record during a Senate floor session earlier this month.
In its recommendation to Miller, the ethics committee noted that it did not believe it could proceed with an investigation of allegations of Oaks’s misconduct until after the federal criminal trial. DeGrange and Jones, the ethics co-chairs, wrote that in the committee’s initial review, the panel had identified “numerous potential violations of the Maryland Public Ethics Law.”
“These violations may include the misuse of public resources, conflict of interest, misuse of the prestige of office, improper acceptance of gifts, failure to make required disclosures and failure to register as a lobbyist,” the co-chairs wrote.
The ethics committee also made a point of noting that Oaks, 71, faces a maximum penalty of 20 years in prison if he is convicted of the charges in the criminal indictment. “Furthermore,” the co-chairs wrote, “if convicted, Senator Oaks would be automatically suspended from office under … the Maryland Constitution, and on final judgment, be automatically removed from office.”
The committee wrote Miller that it expected to resume its investigation “promptly upon the conclusion of the trial.”
On Friday, Oaks filed paperwork for his candidacy with the State Board of Elections. He had been a member of the House of Delegates until Feb. 10, 2017, when he was appointed to the Maryland Senate, replacing Lisa A. Gladden, who resigned her seat due to health problems.
The deadline for filing for the June 26 primary election is 9 p.m. Tuesday.