Oaks to Appeal One of Two Felony Charges But Sentence Will Remain the Same

Defense lawyers for Nathaniel T. Oaks, the disgraced former state senator from West Baltimore, notified the judge who sentenced him to 42 months in federal prison that they were appealing one of two felony charges to which he pleaded guilty in March.

The outcome of the appeal, however, will not affect Oaks’ time in prison because U.S. District Court Judge Richard D. Bennett sentenced him to two 42-month terms – one for each charge – to run concurrently, and as part of his guilty plea, the former legislator agreed not appeal the second charge.

Lawyers from the federal public defender’s office notified Bennett the day after he sentenced Oaks on Wednesday that they were filing an appeal with the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals.

  Nathaniel T. Oaks

That appeal, which hinges on a technical legal point, was all but expected. In fact, since ruling against attorneys for Oaks on March 16, Bennett has said that nothing precluded the defense from taking the matter up the appellate ladder – something he repeated at sentencing.

Oaks, 71, pleaded guilty March 29 to two felony charges – one count of wire fraud and one count of “honest services” wire fraud – two hours after his resignation from the Maryland Senate became effective. As part of the plea, the Democrat from the 41st District specifically agreed not to appeal the simple wire fraud charge, though he was free to appeal the “honest services” wire fraud count.

The defense earlier had argued unsuccessfully that the “honest services” wire fraud charge could not be lodged against Oaks because it was based on an action that technically was not an “official act,” under a 2016 Supreme Court ruling.

The charges grew out of a bribery scheme in which Oaks took three payments totaling $15,300 from a “Mike Henley,” an FBI undercover source who posed as a Texas businessman interested in building apartments in Baltimore.

Twice Oaks used his General Assembly letterhead to falsely promote a “Henley” project to a U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development “official,” who actually was another FBI front in the political corruption probe.

Oaks then requested the Maryland Department of Legislative Services to draft a $250,000 bond bill for “Multi-Family Housing Development at Druid Park Lake” in the 2017 legislative session. Henley had asked Oaks for a pre-filed bond bill so that he could show his bank he had political support for his housing project.

Rebecca S. Talbott, one of two federal public defenders representing the former lawmaker, argued before Bennett in March that Oaks was wrongly charged with the honest services wire fraud count because the bond bill was only drafted at his behest – and never actually introduced in the General Assembly.

As a result, Talbott argued that Oaks’ action was “not an exercise of formal, official governmental power” – that is, an “official act” – because he never followed through to have the bill introduced.

Talbott cited the 2016 U.S. Supreme Court decision that vacated a bribery conviction against former Virginia Gov. Robert F. McDonnell (R) to back her arguments. In a unanimous decision, the high court made it more difficult to prosecute public officials for corruption by narrowing the definition of what is and is not an “official act.”

In the Oaks case, however, Assistant U.S. Attorney Kathleen O. Gavin prevailed March 16 in convincing Bennett to reject the defense arguments by Talbott and Lucius T. Outlaw III.

Oaks was initially charged April 7, 2017, with nine criminal counts related to the “Henley” bribery scheme, but in November of that year, a superseding indictment was handed up that also charged him with one count of obstruction of justice.

The obstruction charge stemmed from his surreptitiously tipping off a target in the bail-bonds industry, known in court documents only as “Person #1,” to the existence of an FBI corruption probe. By that point, in March 2017, federal agents already had confronted Oaks, and the lawmaker had agreed to cooperate with investigators.

The tip-off, which completely derailed the FBI probe, affected the severity of the term meted out by Bennett.

“A good two years of this sentence is the obstruction of justice,” Bennett said Wednesday after imposing the two 42-month concurrent terms on Oaks.

The judge also ordered Oaks to pay a fine of $30,000, plus a $200 special assessment, within 60 days. At the urging of prosecutors, Bennett already ordered the former lawmaker last month to forfeit $5,000 of the bribes he pleaded guilty to accepting.

Oaks will remain free until Sept. 17, when he is to report to prison, likely to the minimum-security satellite camp of the Cumberland Federal Correctional Institution in Allegany County.

Upon completion of his 3½-year prison term, Oaks will be subject to three years of supervised release and must complete 80 hours of community service.

 bzorzi@marylandmatters.org

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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