By William F. Zorzi
A key aide to two Baltimore County executives took at least $22,000 in bribes before becoming an FBI undercover informant under a plea agreement and an integral part of a wide-ranging probe of Maryland political corruption that caught State Sen. Nathaniel T. Oaks in its net, court records show.
Robert J. Barrett, once a high-level official in the county administrations of C.A. “Dutch” Ruppersberger, now a U.S. congressman, and James T. Smith Jr., now a top adviser to the Baltimore mayor, pleaded guilty in September to just one count of filing a false income tax return, in return for agreeing to work for federal investigators in their corruption investigation, records show.
During the time he was cooperating with federal authorities, beginning in the summer of 2014, Barrett met with Oaks multiple times and eventually introduced him to FBI undercover source “Mike Henley,” posing as a Texas businessman who wanted to build apartments in Baltimore, Maryland Matters has learned and confirmed in court records.
Until now, Barrett was only known publicly in the Oaks case as “the Confidential Witness” (“CW”) and referred to as “S-00063808” by the lawmaker’s defense attorneys.
He is a prime character in the government’s corruption case against Oaks — and possibly others who have yet to be publicly identified. Court filings in the Oaks case are rife with references to wiretaps of Barrett’s phone calls and transcripts of conversations recorded from a body wire he wore for federal authorities.
Barrett, 66, of Upperco, was on the public payroll until Thursday, March 1, this past week, when he “retired” from the Baltimore County Public Schools system, a spokeswoman said. He had been executive officer for community outreach/government relations with the county school system since 2010, just before Kevin B. Kamenetz was elected county executive.
Barrett also was executive officer of the Education Foundation of Baltimore County Public Schools, a nonprofit organization that “solicits, manages and distributes supplemental funds” to school system programs and activities, according to the group’s website.
As part of a plea agreement, dated Aug. 31 and signed Sept. 5, Barrett admitted to taking $22,000 in cash bribes from two undercover FBI sources in 2013 and another $37,500 in checks in 2011, 2012 and 2013 from two “local business persons” identified in court documents only as Person #1 and Person #2. The money from Person #1 and Person #2, who are actual business people, is not characterized in the court documents.
Barrett did not declare any of that $59,500 in his income tax filings with the Internal Revenue Service for calendar years 2011, 2012 and 2013, the records, filed in U.S. District Court in Baltimore, show.
Barrett’s sentencing on the single income tax charge is set for May 21, a month after Oaks’ trial on political corruption charges is scheduled to begin. Barrett is to be sentenced by U.S. District Judge Richard D. Bennett, the same judge presiding in the Oaks trial.
Barrett faces a maximum penalty of three years in prison and a fine of $250,000, in addition to any tax restitution, interest and penalty that might be required.
Initial FBI interest
“Prior to the 2013 calendar year,” the FBI began an undercover investigation of Barrett “for possible violations of federal criminal law,” according to a statement of facts in court files.
The court filing does not explain why federal authorities began looking at Barrett.
Last March several Baltimore County officials received letters signed by federal prosecutors, saying their telephone calls had been intercepted as part of a wiretap investigation in 2013 and 2014, but offering no further information.
Federal law requires that the government notify anyone – including non-targeted people — who speak with a target whose phone was wiretapped.
The agreed-to statement of facts in the Barrett case picks up chronologically after he was appointed by Smith as director of Baltimore County Recreation and Parks, a post he held from 2002 until 2010, when he moved to the county school system.
In 2011, Barrett received and cashed a $7,500 check from Person #1, one of the local businesspeople cited in court records. The next year, he took $15,000 – three checks of $5,000 each – from Person #2, records show.
Then, the FBI moved in with two unnamed “undercover employees,” referred to in the filing as UCE #1 and UCE #2, who posed as two out-of-town business persons looking for opportunities in the Baltimore area – a scheme not dissimilar to the one in the Oaks case.
The three developed a business relationship in which Barrett agreed to act as a “consultant” who would help the UCEs “by providing them information about Baltimore County Public Schools projects, making contacts in the local business community and using his influence in Baltimore County government to further the UCEs’ business interests in exchange for cash payments,” records state.
Barrett told the UCEs that he would help them discreetly, without a written contract, the document states.
On Feb. 23, 2013, Barrett and the two UCEs met at a Pikesville restaurant – again not unlike the Oaks case – and the undercover employees gave him $5,000 cash, In return, he gave them a letter, dated Feb. 5, 2013, on BCPS letterhead, stating that the UCEs’ company had done work at several schools and that it had performed well – assertions that were a lie.
Then, a few weeks later, Barrett, identifying himself as a Baltimore County Public Schools official, made a presentation for the UCEs to a group of “potential investors” in Scottsdale, Ariz., falsely claiming that the UCEs had worked with him on a senior housing project in past.
He assured the investors that “he could help the UCEs’ business through his contacts in the Baltimore County government, as well as generally in the business community,” the statement of facts reads.
What he did not know was that the group of “potential investors” in the UCEs’ business was actually a group of undercover agents.
Barrett then met UCE #1 on May 3, 2013, at the same Pikesville restaurant where they had met earlier, and he collected $10,000 cash for his Scottsdale work.
UCE #2 met Barrett yet again at the restaurant and gave him another $5,000 cash in exchange for another letter on BCPS letterhead stating that the school system was awarding a contract to the UCEs’ company for work on a number of schools. That, too, was a lie, the document states.
Finally, on Oct. 30, 2013, the FBI’s undercover employees met Barrett at a Baltimore restaurant and gave him another $2,000 in cash to “thank him for the work he had performed” and for some of the “behind the scenes” work he had done on their behalf.
Also in 2013, Barrett received $10,000 — two more $5,000 checks — from Person #2, as well as another $5,000 check from Person #1, the statement reads.
It is unclear why these two business persons paid Barrett the money, though he told law enforcement agents in a voluntary interview on June 11, 2014 that Person #2 paid him $15,000 in 2012 and $10,000 in 2013 for “political consulting work” that he had performed. There is no further description of the political consulting work or of who might have engaged him.
The amount of tax owed on the $59,500 that he did not declare as income in 2011, 2012 and 2013 is $16,660 – before any penalty or interest — the filing shows. Prosecutors in the plea agreement said they would recommend that Bennett order restitution in the amount of $16,660, but also noted that the IRS “is not a party to this agreement and remains free to pursue any and all lawful remedies it may have,” records show.
The statement of facts is signed by Barrett, his defense lawyer, Robert C. Bonsib, and federal prosecutors Stephen M. Schenning, the acting U.S. Attorney, and Kathleen O. Gavin, the assistant U.S. attorney who is chief of that office’s Fraud and Corruption Section.
Bonsib, who is identified time and again as Barrett’s defense attorney in federal court documents, said in a phone conversation Friday he “can neither confirm nor deny that he is my client.”
Work for county dates back decades
At one time earlier in his career, Barrett was involved in commercial real estate and was principal in a firm called Commercial Real Estate Group (CRG).
He reportedly started working in Baltimore County government in the late 1980s as a part-time liquor inspector under former County Executive Dennis F. Rasmussen, a Democrat. He supposedly had been appointed at the recommendation of Ruppersberger. another Democrat.
Barrett continued as a part-time liquor inspector during most of the time that one-term Baltimore County Executive Roger B. Hayden, a Republican, was in office.
Then in 1994, Barrett signed on as Ruppersberger’s campaign manager, when the now-congressman ran the first time – and won — for Baltimore County executive. After the election, he went back on the county payroll as Ruppersberger’s senior executive assistant.
For the next eight years he was described in terms such as Ruppersberger’s “political troubleshooter,” “right hand man” and “top adviser.”
Questions were raised about his activities in 2001, after an article in The Sun detailed a series of no-bid arrangements with the county government in which a real estate agent with ties to Barrett and his wife, Debra L. Barrett, also a Realtor, collected thousands of dollars in commissions from $3 million in transactions. No wrongdoing was alleged and the matter eventually went away quietly.
Ruppersberger was elected to the U.S. House of Representatives from Maryland’s 2nd District in 2002 and has served in the Congress ever since.
After Jim Smith, also a Democrat, was elected Baltimore County executive in 2002, Barrett was his first appointment – as the new director of recreation and parks.
Smith, a former Baltimore County councilman and circuit judge, was executive for two terms and then was appointed Gov. Martin J. O’Malley’s secretary of Transportation, serving from July 2013 until January 2015. Most recently he was appointed “chief of strategic alliances” for Baltimore Mayor Catherine E. Pugh (D).
The month before Kamenetz was elected in 2010, Barrett moved to the county public schools post.
In that position, he served under three school superintendents: Joe A. Hairston, who stepped down in 2012; S. Dallas Dance, who stepped down last spring and was indicted by a state grand jury in January on four counts of perjury for failing to disclose nearly $147,000 in compensation from outside private consulting sources; and Verletta White, the interim superintendent whose activities have raised ethics questions.
Oaks’ lawyers question motives
In a memorandum filed Thursday in U.S. District Court in Baltimore, federal public defenders representing Oaks argue that S-00063808 – now known to be Barrett – had reason to repeatedly approach the lawmaker in an effort to induce him to accept bribes. That reason, they assert, was a deal on the sentence for the income tax charge that was hanging over his head.
“According to discovery provided by the government subsequent to the filing of Senator Oaks’s original entrapment motion, S-00063808 has pled [sic] guilty to federal charges stemming from bribes he/she received while working as a county executive officer,” the lawyers wrote.
“As part of his/her plea agreement,” Oaks’ lawyers wrote, “S-00063808 entered into a cooperation agreement with the federal government that provides valuable sentencing benefits for S-00063808 if he/she successfully assists the government – assistance which, according to the cooperation agreement, includes S-00063808’s working in an undercover capacity at the direction of the federal government.”
The defense lawyers, Lucius T. Outlaw III and Rebecca S. Talbott, filed the memorandum Thursday in support of an earlier request of Judge Bennett to agree, before Oaks’ trial, to explain entrapment to the jury – a motion to which the prosecution vehemently objected in a filing last month.
The Oaks probe dates to the summer of 2014 — almost two years before the lawmaker allegedly took his first bribe from “Mike Henley,” the FBI confidential source now known to be William Myles, in April 2016, and nearly three years before the lawmaker was first charged with wire fraud, in April 2017.
Oaks was later charged, in November, with fraud and obstruction of justice in a superseding 10-count indictment.
Nine fraud charges are related to allegations that Oaks took $15,300 in a bribery scheme involving Myles (as “Mike Henley”). When he allegedly took the money, Oaks was unaware of the federal investigation, though he later became aware of the probe and 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 in his case only as “Person #1,” to the existence of a corruption probe.
Oaks has pleaded not guilty to all the charges.
His trial on the nine fraud charges is scheduled to begin April 16, a week after the Maryland General Assembly adjourns. The obstruction of justice trial is set for Aug. 20.
Oaks has filed as a candidate for his District 41 Senate seat representing West Baltimore and faces a contested Democratic primary race June 26.