Oaks Faces Judge on Tuesday

Nathaniel T. Oaks, the former Maryland state senator from West Baltimore’s 41st District, is scheduled to be sentenced Tuesday in federal court after pleading guilty earlier this year to two felonies stemming from a bribery scheme in a political corruption investigation. Oaks, 71, faces a prison term of 8 to 10 years under federal sentencing guidelines, but both the defense and prosecution are asking U.S. District Judge Richard D. Bennett to sentence him to less time. Federal public defenders representing Oaks asked Bennett in a court filing last Monday to ignore the “flawed” guidelines and instead impose an 18-month term on the disgraced Democratic lawmaker. Nathaniel T. Oaks, right, and his lawyer Lucius T. Outlaw III arrive at the federal courthouse in Baltimore in May. File Photo “Such a sentence is consistent with Mr. Oaks’ conduct … and takes into consideration the bulk of Mr. Oaks’ life as a law-abiding public servant who has made significant contributions to his community,” wrote his defense lawyers, Lucius T. Outlaw III and Rebecca S. Talbott. “People of District 41 and other people who have observed Mr. Oaks over the years recognize the seriousness of Mr. Oaks’ crime, but are willing to forgive him and ask the court for mercy because of all the good that Mr. Oaks brought to District 41 and the rest of Baltimore,” Outlaw and Talbott wrote. Along with its 28-page sentencing memorandum – the first of four such letters to the court in the last week – the defense team included letters from 34 community activists, bureaucrats and politicos, many of them well-known in Baltimore, whose praise underscored those contributions. Another defense filing Friday included nine more letters of support for Oaks. Federal prosecutors, however, are not so moved and are seeking more prison time, asking Bennett to sentence Oaks to five years behind bars with three years of supervised release. “Oaks repeatedly betrayed the trust placed in him by the citizens of Maryland, both before and during the FBI’s undercover investigation that led to the charges in this case,” wrote Kathleen O. Gavin and Leo J. Wise, the assistant U.S. attorneys prosecuting the case. “He routinely traded on his public office and influence, accepting money and other benefits that he knew were bestowed upon him by individuals seeking his official favor and action.” A five-year sentence “will reflect the seriousness of the offenses, promote respect for the law and afford adequate deterrence to criminal conduct,” Gavin and Wise wrote in the government’s sentencing memorandum filed last Wednesday. The prosecution is also recommending that Oaks be fined between $30,000 and $300,000. On March 29, two hours after resigning his state Senate seat, Oaks pleaded guilty before Bennett to two of 10 charges brought against him in a November indictment – one count of wire fraud and one count of “honest services” wire fraud. The charges grew out of a bribery scheme in which he took $15,300 from a “Mike Henley,” an FBI undercover source who posed as a Texas businessman interested in building apartments in Baltimore. During the plea hearing, Bennett said he would impose concurrent sentences on Oaks, but added that he had to wait for the presentence investigation report before considering what those terms might be. He noted that the federal advisory guidelines call for a sentence of eight to 10 years. “I don’t presume that that range is reasonable, but that would be the advisory guideline range itself,” Bennett said at the time. “There are other factors that will be considered, as well … by me before sentencing.” Oaks’ defense lawyers have lined up a parade of character witnesses to speak at the sentencing hearing Tuesday, including a current member of the House of Delegates and two former lawmakers. Appearing for Oaks will be Del. C.T. Wilson (D-Charles County); former state Sen. John A. Pica Jr. (D-Baltimore), now a lobbyist; former Del. Clarence “Tiger” Davis (D-Baltimore); David Maurice Smallwood, a West Baltimore community activist who has run unsuccessfully for a District 8 Baltimore City Council seat; and Vincent Robinson. Pica, Davis, Smallwood and Robinson also wrote letters asking for leniency. Among others who wrote letters were: Leonard Hamm, a former Baltimore police commissioner who now heads Coppin State University’s police force; former Del. Salima Siler Marriott, another West Baltimore Democrat who was later a deputy mayor; former Del. Gareth E. Murray, a Montgomery County Democrat; and Larry Young, a close friend of Oaks, radio talk-show host and West Baltimore Democrat who was voted out of the Maryland Senate for his own ethics violations. Young wrote to Bennett that he was concerned about Oaks’ health. “As I have observed Nathaniel over the past several months, I grow increasingly concerned about his physical and emotional state as he attempts to ready himself for the sentencing phase,” Young wrote. “His unintentional weight loss, excessively fatigued appearance and distressed disposition is taking a toll on a man nearly 72 years old.” Another member of the House, Del. Joseline A. Pena-Melnyk (D-Prince George’s), wrote to the judge praising Oaks’ efforts in Annapolis and calling him a “mentor” to her on the Health and Government Operations Committee, before he was appointed to the Senate in 2017. Pena-Melnyk’s letter was included in a third supplemental sentencing filing by the defense Friday that transmitted eight other letters to Bennett from Oaks’ relatives and friends. Those writing earlier were Imam Earl El-Amin, of Baltimore’s Muslim community; Marvin L. “Doc” Cheatham, former head of the Baltimore Branch of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People; and Robert P. “Bob” Wade, the former basketball coach at Dunbar High School and the University of Maryland College Park. The Rev. Maurice J. Blackwell, a defrocked Roman Catholic priest who is now executive director of Lost and Found Ministries, also wrote Bennett, saying he has known Oaks for 44 years and calling him “an instrument of peace, an agent for change and a vessel of creativity.” Blackwell was shot three times in 2002 by a man who said that nine years earlier the then-priest molested him as a teenager. Three years later, in 2005, a Baltimore jury convicted Blackwell of child abuse, but the charges were overturned, and prosecutors dropped the case instead of seeking a new trial. In the last week, there has been confusion among some media outlets about access to the sentencing memoranda, which were unavailable for viewing or downloading from a remote location via the federal court’s electronic access system. On Friday, Maryland Matters and lawyers for The Daily Record newspaper filed requests with the court asking that Bennett make available both the defense and prosecution memoranda and the 33 exhibits related to both – 18 with the defense memorandum and 15 with the prosecution memorandum. In response, Bennett sent a copy of the prosecution’s sentencing memorandum to the newspaper’s lawyer Friday night. On Monday, the judge requested that prosecutors send copies of all the sentencing letters filed by both the government and the defense to Maryland Matters, which they did Monday evening. The exception to the release was the defense’s first “Supplemental Sentencing Letter,” which contained confidential health information about Oaks and was sealed by the court last week. Two supplemental sentencing letters were filed Friday by defense lawyers for Oaks, but unlike the earlier sentencing memos, these were available for viewing and downloading on the federal court’s nationwide Public Access to Court Electronic Records system. In one of those sentencing letters to Bennett, defense attorneys Outlaw and Talbott took issue with prosecutors’ “prejudicial” assertions about the former lawmaker’s conduct in the government’s sentencing memorandum. In citing cases to support their sentencing recommendation, prosecutors referenced two Maryland corruption cases in their letter to Bennett — the federal cases against former state Sen. Thomas L. Bromwell (D-Baltimore County) and Prince George’s County Executive Jack B. Johnson (D). “The only similarity that Mr. Oaks’s case shares with Bromwell and Johnson is that all three cases involve elected officials,” Outlaw and Talbott wrote. “The $15,300 that Mr. Oaks received in improper payments is dwarfed by the $275,000 in cash and benefits that defendant Bromwell received and the more than $400,000 that defendant Johnson received.” Bromwell was sentenced in 2007 to seven years in prison after pleading guilty to a racketeering conspiracy charge and filing a false tax return; Johnson was sentenced in 2011 to seven years and three months, after pleading guilty to extortion and evidence tampering.  [email protected] CORRECTION: An earlier version of this article incorrectly reported that both the defense and prosecution sentencing memoranda and exhibits were sealed. In fact, only the defense’s first “Supplemental Sentencing Letter,” containing confidential health information about Oaks, was sealed by the court. Unlike most other documents, however, the defense and prosecution sentencing memoranda were unavailable for viewing or downloading from a remote location via the federal court’s electronic access system because of a rule of the U.S. District Court for Maryland. The sentencing memoranda files can be viewed, but apparently not printed out, in the clerk’s office of the U.S. District Court in Baltimore, under the rule. Nevertheless, two of the defense sentencing memoranda – the “Second Supplemental Sentencing Letter” and “Third Supplemental Sentencing Letter” – filed Friday were accessible in the electronic court file.  

William F. Zorzi
Bill Zorzi was a Baltimore Sun reporter and editor for nearly 20 years, focusing on government and politics. An Annapolis bureau veteran, he wrote a weekly column, “The Political Game” for the paper.Zorzi and another former Sun reporter, David Simon, are longtime collaborators on acclaimed television projects, including the HBO series, “The Wire,” and the HBO miniseries “Show Me a Hero,” which dealt with an explosive housing desegregation case in Yonkers, NY.

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