A defense lawyer in the political corruption case against Nathaniel T. Oaks on Wednesday informed the federal judge who accepted the former legislator’s guilty plea that West Baltimore Democrat was “exploring … ways to withdraw his name” from the June 26 primary ballot.
In a letter filed in U.S. District Court in Baltimore, Oaks’ public defender, Lucius T. Outlaw III, informed the judge that the former state senator is working to resolve open and persistent questions about his candidacy for public office, past, present and future.
“To be clear, it is Mr. Oaks’s intention and desire not to be on the ballot for the upcoming primary election,” Outlaw wrote to U.S. District Judge Richard D. Bennett.
Nathaniel T. Oaks and lawyer Lucius T. Outlaw III arrive at the federal courthouse in Baltimore last month.
Outlaw also advised Bennett that a second case had been filed in Anne Arundel County Circuit Court asking a state judge to order the Baltimore City and Maryland State Board of Elections to remove Oaks’ name from the ballot for West Baltimore’s 41st District.
The eight-page Circuit Court petition, a copy of which Outlaw included in his federal court filing, was brought by Linda Harpool, a registered voter in the 41st District, against the Baltimore City Board of Elections, its director, Armstead B.C. Jones Sr., the Maryland State Board of Elections and its administrator Linda H. Lamone.
The emergency petition for declaratory and injunctive relief included a one-page affidavit signed by Oaks in which the former lawmaker consented “to have my name removed from the ballot for the primary election for June 26, 2018.”
Oaks went on in the affidavit to state that “it is in the best interest of the people of Legislative District 41 that my name be removed from the ballot following my recent guilty plea in federal court.”
Late Monday, three political activists, all registered voters from the 41st District, also filed suit in Anne Arundel County Circuit Court asking a judge to require Lamone to strike the Oaks’ name from the primary ballot. Those three plaintiffs are Nancy Lord Lewin, Elinor G. “Ellie” Mitchell and Christopher R. Ervin.
While the two cases both seek to remove Oaks’ name from the ballot, they are each different in their approach.
The case filed for Lewin, Mitchell and Ervin alleges their constitutional rights are being violated by Oaks’ name remaining on the ballot; the case filed on Harpool’s behalf maintains that leaving Oaks’ name on the ballot could affect the outcome of the election.
Oaks’ name currently appears twice on the 41st District ballot – as a candidate for both the Maryland Senate and Baltimore City Democratic State Central Committee – because he was qualified at the time of the state’s Feb. 27 primary election filing deadline and the subsequent withdraw and disqualification dates.
Although under indictment at the time of the filing deadline, Oaks, 71, pleaded guilty a month later – March 29 – to one felony charge of wire fraud and one felony charge of honest services wire fraud, stemming from a scheme in which he took $15,300 in bribes from an FBI undercover source. Two hours before the plea, he resigned his Maryland Senate seat.
Oaks is scheduled to be sentenced by Bennett on July 17, three weeks after the primary election. Under Maryland law, he would not lose his right to vote until actually entering prison, and thus would still be eligible to be on a ballot until that time.
Outlaw expressed concern in his letter to Bennett about the judge’s earlier questioning of Oaks before he pleaded guilty and his “advisement” regarding the former state senator’s loss of civil rights because of the plea.
“To date, since the re-arraignment, defense counsel has been unable to locate a legal basis confirming the Court’s advisement that Mr. Oaks is barred from holding political office in the future as a result of this case,” Outlaw wrote.
“However, out of an abundance of caution, and in deference to the Court’s advisement and Mr. Oaks’s desire to spare the people of District 41 and the Maryland Senate the confusion and uncertainty of his continuing candidacy, Mr. Oaks is exploring and pursing [sic] ways to withdraw his name from the primary election ballot,” the defense lawyer wrote.
At Oaks’ March 29 re-arraignment, Bennett questioned him closely on his understanding of the effect of pleading guilty to the two charges.
“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.
In the letter filed Wednesday, Outlaw advised Bennett that while Oaks continues to pursue ways to remove his name from the ballot, he also has suspended any campaign efforts for this year’s primary and general elections.
“If he wins the primary election, he will immediately decline/resign the nomination,” Outlaw asserted to the judge.
He also noted that Oaks is taking steps to let the District 41 voters know of his actions.
“We sincerely hope these actions will alleviate any concerns the Court may have and allow the voters of District 41 to exercise their votes with full knowledge of Mr. Oaks’s circumstances and intentions,” Outlaw wrote.
Oaks’ name appears on the 41st District ballot with two other Democrats vying for the Senate seat, Jill P. Carter and J.D. Merrill. It also appears in a second spot with 23 other candidates for the seven-member 41st District Democratic State Central Committee.
Supporters of Carter would also like to see Oaks’ name removed from the ballot, fearing that inclusion of his name on the ballot will draw votes away from her and give Merrill an advantage in the primary.
At this point in time, however, it appears that only an Anne Arundel County Circuit Court judge could force the State Elections Board to remove his name from the two spots on the ballot before printing. There is nothing apparent in state law that would allow the State Election Board to change the ballot on its own.
The two Circuit Court cases now pending are concerned with Oaks’ name appearing on the ballot, but there remains an open question regarding his seat on the Democratic State Central Committee – which he still holds.
Oaks could easily remedy that problem by withdrawing his voter registration, thus rendering himself unqualified to continue to hold a seat on the Democratic State Central Committee.
But that also would mean he would lose his role on the central committee in voting at a meeting next Tuesday for his temporary Senate replacement from the 41st District. The replacement would serve out the remainder of Oaks’ term, until Jan. 9, 2019.
The Maryland Democratic Party’s bylaws, and not Maryland election law, govern whether Oaks can continue on the State Central Committee.
The problem of his continuance on the Democratic State Central Committee is being reviewed by party officials, though it is unclear whether they will act one way or another before next Tuesday’s meeting of the 41st District Democrats.
Democratic activists in the 41st District have circulated petitions seeking to oust Oaks from the central committee – including at a Senate candidate forum Sunday — but whether they will resolve the matter before Tuesday remains to be seen.
Oaks was a member of the House of Delegates for 22 years, until Feb. 10, 2017, when he was appointed to the Maryland Senate, replacing Lisa A. Gladden, who resigned her seat due to health problems.
Earlier, Oaks also had been a member of the House of Delegates, first elected in 1982, but he was forced to forfeit his seat in 1989, after being convicted of theft charges related to double-billing his legislative expenses. That conviction was changed in 1990, at his request, to probation before judgment by a Baltimore judge.