A federal judge in the political corruption case against state Sen. Nathaniel T. Oaks rejected defense motions Tuesday to dismiss six charges stemming from an alleged bribery scheme involving the lawmaker, finding arguments to toss them out “without merit.”
In a 24-page written opinion, U.S. District Court Judge Richard D. Bennett was clear that he was not persuaded by defense assertions that Oaks was wrongly charged in six of 10 counts of a federal indictment because an action he allegedly took was not an “official act” under a 2016 Supreme Court ruling.
The defense had argued that under the ruling, Oaks was wrongly charged in a bribery scheme in which he allegedly accepted $15,300 in return for bond bill legislation because that bill was only ever drafted – never actually introduced in the General Assembly – and therefore, was not an “official act.”
As a result, Oaks’ federal defenders reasoned, Bennett should dismiss one charge of “honest services wire fraud” and five charges of violating the federal Travel Act by using an “interstate facility” (a cellular telephone) to break Maryland’s bribery law.
Federal prosecutors maintain that the defense motions should be rejected outright, and Bennett sided with them in his decision.
“The defendant’s arguments are without merit, as the submission of such a request [to draft a bond bill] by a member of the Maryland General Assembly is an official act,” Bennett wrote. “That act is within the ambit of honest services wire fraud, the Travel Act, the Maryland bribery statute and the Supreme Court’s recent opinion in McDonnell v. United States.”
In that case, the Supreme Court vacated a bribery conviction against former Virginia Gov. Robert F. McDonnell (R). In a unanimous decision, the high court made it harder to prosecute public officials for corruption by narrowing the definition of what is and is not an “official act.”
On Friday, Bennett heard oral arguments from both the defense and prosecution in U.S. District Court in Baltimore based on memoranda on the dismissal motions filed earlier by both sides.
During the hearing, the judge seemed dubious of the defense’s logic, though he said at the time that regardless of how he ruled on the motions, nothing would preclude the lawyers from arguing later at trial that the government did not prove its case that a criminal act had been committed.
Oaks, a West Baltimore Democrat, is charged with nine criminal counts related to the bribery scheme, in which he allegedly took $15,300 from an FBI confidential source posing as Texas developer “Mike Henley,” looking to do business in Baltimore.
In return for the money, the government has charged, Oaks allegedly agreed to sponsor a bond bill for “Henley” to help pay for a project in the city.
Court documents show that Oaks had gone so far in November 2016 as to ask the Maryland Department of Legislative Services to draft the bond bill, which would have generated $250,000 for a “Multi-Family Housing Development at Druid Park Lake,” if the legislation been introduced, approved by both houses of the General Assembly and signed into law by the governor.
The bill, however, was only drafted at Oaks’ request and never introduced by the lawmaker.
But, Bennett made a point in his opinion Monday of noting the specificity in the Oaks indictment, which, he wrote, “alleges the draft bond bill would, if passed, authorize $250,000 in state funding for the ‘Multi-Family Housing Development at Druid Park Lake.’”
“The draft bill identifies a single project as the recipient of state funding,” Bennett wrote. “It does not leave the recipient information blank or even identify a group of candidates.”
At the time Oaks asked that the bill be drafted, he did not know he was the target of a federal investigation.
Oaks is also charged with one count of obstruction of justice, which stems from allegations that while he later 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.
The charges against Oaks thus far unchallenged by the defense are three counts of wire fraud and the obstruction count.
He has pleaded not guilty to all the charges.
Oaks’ trial on the nine bribery-related charges is scheduled to begin April 16, a week after the Maryland General Assembly adjourns. A separate trial on the obstruction of justice charge is set for Aug. 20.