By William F. Zorzi
The name of former Maryland state Sen. Nathaniel T. Oaks will appear twice on the June primary election ballot in Baltimore’s 41st District – as candidate for both Senate and the Democratic State Central Committee – despite his pleading guilty last week to two federal felonies related to political corruption.
The removal of Oaks’ name from the ballot hinges, in part, on if and when he begins “serving a court-ordered sentence of imprisonment” for the felony convictions, Maryland election law states. Only then would the West Baltimore Democrat lose his right to vote and become ineligible to be listed as a candidate on the ballot, election officials say.
His sentencing before U.S. District Judge Richard D. Bennett in Baltimore is scheduled for July 17, three weeks after the June 26 primary. That means his name remains on the 41st District’s ballot, the proofs of which were made public by the election board Wednesday.
“We’re not taking him off the ballot because he meets all the qualifications for those positions,” said Jared J. DeMarinis, director of candidacy and campaign finance for the State Board of Elections.
But a little-used provision in Maryland’s election law could allow for Oaks’ name to be stricken from the ballot, with the help of a circuit court judge. That section of the law provides for a registered voter to seek judicial relief by filing a circuit court challenge within 10 days of learning of an act that “may change … the outcome of the election.”
Nothing precludes a registered voter from filing the court action and attempting to show that inclusion of Oaks’ name on the ballot could change the election’s outcome, DeMarinis said.
Oaks, 71, resigned his Maryland Senate seat last Thursday, hours before he pleaded guilty to one count of wire fraud and one count of “honest services” wire fraud in U.S. District Court in Baltimore.
Those charges were two of nine stemming from Oaks taking $15,300 in a bribery scheme from an FBI confidential source who posed as a Texas businessman wanting to do business in Baltimore. He also was charged with obstruction of justice for later tipping off a target to a federal corruption probe while he was supposed to be cooperating with the FBI.
Oaks retains his seat on the seven-member Democratic State Central Committee for the 41st District and, not withstanding some action by the party, will be eligible to vote for his own Senate replacement at a meeting now scheduled for April 17.
In the meantime, the central committee is fielding applicants to finish Oaks’ Senate term, through Jan. 9, 2019.
A request for judicial remedy to Oaks’ name being on the ballot would have to be filed in Anne Arundel County Circuit Court, because Oaks filed his certificate of candidacy in Annapolis and the State Elections Board certifies elections from its offices in Annapolis, DeMarinis said.
The law states that “a registered voter may seek judicial relief from any act or omission relating to an election, whether or not the election has been held, on the grounds that the act or omission is consistent with [laws] applicable to the election process, and may change, or has changed, the outcome of the election.”
The registered voter may seek judicial relief within “10 days after the act or omission became known to the petitioner,” the law states.
DeMarinis said that determining when the 10-day clock starts would be a “judicial decision,” as it is unclear what the actual “act” is – Oaks’ plea or the public dissemination of the board’s keeping his name on the ballot — and when that act “became known” to the would-be voter-petitioner.
Ten days from Oaks’ guilty plea in open court is Sunday, April 8. As the circuit court is closed that day, state law allows for the voter’s action to be filed on the next business day, Monday, April 9, DeMarinis said.
While Oaks is no longer a member of the Senate, he still holds a seat on the Democratic State Central Committee, though the Democrats are examining whether he can continue, under the party bylaws.
“We’re looking at it,” said Del. Angela C. Gibson (D-Baltimore), chair of Baltimore city’s 41st District Democratic State Central Committee. “This has never happened before.”
The question of whether Oaks’ name appears on the ballot as a candidate for both Senate and central committee is a decision of the State Board of Elections, DeMarinis said. But whether he can continue on the central committee is up to the Democratic Party, because in that case, Oaks is a party official, not a “public official,” he said.
If Oaks were to be elected again as one of the seven members of 41st District Democratic State Central Committee in the June 26 Democratic primary, he would again take the seat, once the results are certified by the state board, which is usually about a week after the election, DeMarinis said.
Any action to the contrary then – or later, upon Oaks beginning a possible prison term – would be the Democratic Party’s decision, based on its bylaws, DeMarinis said.
During Oaks’ guilty plea last week in U.S. District Court in Baltimore, the lawmaker’s future as an officeholder seemed clear, as Bennett ticked off a battery of questions.
Ultimately, the reality seems anything but clear – or simple.
“Do you understand that if I accept your plea of guilty to [one count of wire fraud and one count of honest services wire fraud] …, that adjudication would deny you of certain valuable civil rights. Do you understand that, sir?” Bennett asked.
“Yes, sir,” Oaks replied.
“Most specifically, you lose the right to be elected to public office, do you understand that sir?”
“Do you understand that?” Bennett asked again.
The judge then acknowledged that Oaks had resigned his Senate seat, effective that morning, and continued questioning him.
“What you surrender is your right to run for public office and to be elected to public office, do you understand that?” Bennett asked.
“Yes, sir,” Oaks said.
“You lose the right to vote, you lose the right to a firearm, you lose the right to ammunition, do you understand that, sir?
“Yes, sir,” Oaks said.