Disgraced ex-legislator Nathaniel T. Oaks is scheduled to enter the minimum-security satellite camp at the Cumberland Federal Correctional Institution Monday to begin serving a 3½ -year sentence on political corruption charges.
It is an ignoble finish to the Democrat’s decades-long career representing West Baltimore’s 41st District, and some of Maryland’s poorest residents, in the General Assembly.
Yet even as Oaks goes off to prison, the public disclosures in the last six months – many the result of the federal government’s prosecution of a scheme in which he took $15,300 in bribes from an undercover FBI source – offer only a small window into the financial dealings of the former lawmaker.
Two months ago, Oaks stood before a U.S. District Judge Richard D. Bennett waiting to be sentenced on two felony charges – wire fraud and “honest services” wire fraud – to which he already had pleaded guilty earlier in the year, two hours after resigning from the Maryland Senate.
As the July 17 proceeding began in Baltimore, Bennett asked the 71-year-old Oaks about medication he took for diabetes and other ailments that was noted in a presentence investigation report, a routine query to ensure that the defendant is clear-minded about what is happening.
“Did you take medication this morning, sir?” Bennett asked.
“Yes, your honor,” Oaks replied. “I ran out of most of my medication, and because I lost my job, I don’t have health insurance nor prescription. But I did take meta… metformin.”
Bennett asked, “OK, so you took some medication today, and this is medication you normally take every morning?”
“Yes, sir — well, twice a day,” Oaks said.
Minutes later, Kathleen O. Gavin, the lead assistant U.S. attorney in the case against Oaks, clarified the ex-lawmaker’s financial standing – and presumably his ability to pay for those prescription drugs – when she read briefly from the generally confidential pre-sentence investigation report prepared by his federal probation officer.
Gavin told the court that Oaks’ assets were valued at $1.63 million and his personal net worth was $1.59 million. But what seemed at that instant like a bombshell revelation was lost in the nearly two hours of testimony that followed, much of it by witnesses who spoke on Oaks’ behalf.
If those million-dollar amounts registered with Bennett, he never mentioned it. At the end of the hearing, he sentenced Oaks to two 42-month terms to run concurrently.
Almost immediately, lawyers for Oaks –– assistant federal public defenders appointed to represent him in December 2017, after he was found to be “indigent” – filed an appeal of one of the charges, “honest services” wire fraud, although even a finding in his favor would not have changed the amount of time he was in prison. But on Aug. 6, the defense lawyers withdrew the appeal at Oaks’ request, documents filed with the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals show.
What was not mentioned two months ago at Oaks’ sentencing was the fact that in the weeks before the hearing, the ex-lawmaker was quietly distributing nearly $90,000 from his campaign account, Friends of Nathaniel Oaks, to political allies and organizations run by friends, spending down the $103,710 he had raised for a 2018 reelection bid that was not to be.
The money in Oaks’ campaign finance account, detailed in reports on file with the Maryland State Board of Elections, is not part of the federal court’s presentence accounting of his assets and personal worth.
But included in the money disbursed from the campaign account was a $650 check to his very close friend, Larry Young, a radio talk show host who was expelled from the Maryland Senate for his own ethical breaches in 1998.
The reason given for the Oaks campaign expenditure to Young was “other” — “citizen appreciation” of the WOLB-AM talk show host, according to Oaks’ last campaign finance report, filed Aug. 28 with the state election board.
Maryland election law allows for candidates who are closing their campaign accounts to disburse that money in a variety of specific ways, many of which involve donations to different types of charities.
Cash contributions for “citizen appreciation” do not appear to be among the permitted uses noted in the state election law.
Oaks transferred $29,000 to other candidates’ campaign accounts, spreading the wealth to 15 Democratic politicians both before and after Maryland’s June 26 primary election.
The big winner was Cory V. McCray, a member of the House of Delegates who defeated Oaks’ onetime colleague in the Maryland Senate, Sen. Nathaniel J. McFadden in the Democratic primary for the 45th District seat representing East Baltimore.
Oaks transferred $6,000 to McCray’s campaign account on July 13, a little more than two weeks after the election.
The campaign transferred a total of $4,500 to Del. C.T. Wilson, a Charles County Democrat, $3,000 on June 15 and $1,500 on July 13. Wilson, who won his primary race in District 28, was supposed to speak on Oaks’ behalf at the sentencing hearing July 17, but did not show up in court that day.
Two transfers totaling $2,250 — $750 on June 15 and $1,500 on July 13 – were made to the campaign account of Del. Vanessa E. Atterbeary of Howard County who won her primary bid in District 13.
Oaks transferred $3,000 each June 15 to the campaign accounts of state Sen. Joan Carter Conway of Northeast Baltimore’s 43rd District and Baltimore State’s Attorney Marilyn J. Mosby.
Conway, the chairwoman of the powerful Senate Education, Health and Environmental Affairs Committee, lost her re-election bid in the primary to Del. Mary L. Washington, who faces no opposition in the general election.
Mosby won a bruising three-way primary for reelection and also faces no opposition in the general.
On July 13, the Oaks campaign transferred $2,000 each to House Speaker Michael E. Busch, who won the primary in Anne Arundel County’s District 30A, and Del. Dereck E. Davis, chairman of the House Economic Matters Committee, won his District 25 primary race in Prince George’s County and has no competition in the general election.
Busch’s campaign says the Oaks donation was never deposited.
Another post-primary transfer went to Del. Antonio L. Hayes, who received $1,500 July 13, after defeating state Sen. Barbara A. Robinson in the primary. Hayes has no race in November for the 40th District Senate seat.
Two incumbents from East Baltimore’s 45th District each received $1,000 after their successful primary races — Del. Talmadge Branch and Del. Cheryl D. Glenn. They face opposition from Republicans and Green Party candidates in the general.
Oaks also sent $500 to the campaign of Diane F. DeCarlo (D), a former member of both the House of Delegates and Maryland Senate from Baltimore County, after she won her District 6 primary in a comeback bid. She faces an uphill battle in the general election.
Before the primary, the Oaks campaign transferred $750 to Del. Kriselda Valderrama-Lobo for her District 26 reelection bid in Prince George’s County. She has no opposition in the general election.
He also transferred $500 to the campaign account of Del. Charles E. Sydnor III in Baltimore County’s District 44B, who won his primary and has no race in the general. Sydnor told Maryland Matters that he returned the check.
The Oaks campaign transferred $500 each to two unsuccessful candidates for the House of Delegates in his home District 41 — Sean A. Stinnett and Joyce J. Smith, who had been a member of the Baltimore City Democratic State Central Committee and is Del. Cheryl Glenn’s sister.
As a sort of parting gift, the Oaks campaign committee sent checks totaling $56,900 to 16 recipients on July 13, four days before he was sentenced, campaign finance records show. The “expenditure purpose” for each, except for the Larry Young check, states “For Close Out Only – Charitable Donation,” records show.
The Oaks campaign sent $6,000 each to American Institute of Urban Psychology Studies; Arena Players Inc., Harold Diggs of the Cottda Foundation (formerly the Community Outreach Team Teaching, Developing and Achieving Foundation); Riley Hawkins Avengers Foundation; and Unification Solutions LLC (which technically was not established as a legal entity recognized by the state until Aug. 2, 2018). All of them have Baltimore addresses.
It also sent $6,000 to The Robert J. Blackwell Foundation, which, according to documents at the Maryland Department of Assessments and Taxation, is run by the Rev. Maurice J. Blackwell, the defrocked Roman Catholic priest who wrote to Judge Bennett on Oaks’ behalf before sentencing.
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.
The campaign sent $4,000 to the Regular Grand Lodge of Maryland, an organization that appears to be based in Prince George’s County, but with a Baltimore address, and $3,000 each to the Cherry Hill Eagles Foundation, based in the South Baltimore community of the same name, and Doin It 4 Dale Griffin, a Baltimore nonprofit established to help the homeless.
Checks for $2,500 were sent to three entities, Baltimore Brothers, Basketball Academy Inc. and The Change Point Foundation, while $1,000 checks were sent to Mentoring Male Teens in The Hood and the Matthew Henson Community Development Corp.
The Mathew Henson CDC is a nonprofit created by Marvin L. “Doc” Cheatham, former head of the Baltimore Branch of the NAACP and a one-time member of the Baltimore City Board of Elections. Cheatham also wrote Bennett in support of Oaks before his sentencing.
Last was a check for $750 sent to the New St. Mark Baptist Church in Northwest Baltimore, the campaign finance report showed.
Other campaign finance activity
Oaks’ most recent campaign finance report also shows two transactions that do not seem consistent with the fact that he did not actively run for office in the June 26 primary election, although his name remained on the ballot in the 41st District as a candidate for state Senate and the Baltimore City Democratic State Central Committee.
As the sole entry for “Field Expenses,” the Oaks campaign paid Vera Ann Dillard of Owings Mills $6,575 for “Consultant Fees – campaign workers” on July 13.
The second item was an entry showing that the Working Together Works for the 41st District Slate – which includes Oaks — transferred $3,377.06 into his campaign account on July 11.
State election board records show the Working Together slate currently includes Oaks, his successor in the 41st District, state Sen. Jill P. Carter, who won the primary and will return to the Senate in January, and Del. Angela C. Gibson, a 41st District Democratic State Central Committee member who lost her primary race in June to return to the House of Delegates.
There are three “inactive” members of the slate shown in election records: Del. Bilal A. Ali, another 41st District Democratic State Central Committee member who lost his primary race and will not be returning to the House, Del. Samuel I. “Sandy” Rosenberg, who won his primary and will face no opposition in the fall, and former state Sen. Lisa A. Gladden, Oaks’ predecessor who resigned her seat for health reasons in 2017.
The original explanation in the slate’s June 14 filing was for a May 17 transfer to the Oaks account. “This was the amount of money that was owed to Sen. Oaks when he resigned from the state,” the report states.
A Sept. 4 amendment to the slate’s report includes — and then deletes, possibly in error — a June 17 transfer of $3,377.06 to the Oaks account, which it incorrectly identifies as Committee to Re-elect Nathaniel Oaks. The transfer explanation was changed to “Balance of his funds in the Slate.”
The cash balance remaining in the Friends of Nathaniel Oaks account as of the last filing date with the State Board of Elections, Aug. 28, is $14,612.
As a result of his convictions, Oaks will forfeit his legislative pension, officials with the Maryland State Retirement and Pension System said.
However, officials said, he is now receiving state pension benefits – and will continue to do so — from his long-time position with the Injured Workers Insurance Fund (IWIF), once a state agency, where he worked as an account manager. There apparently are no provisions in the law that require a forfeiture of those benefits.
IWIF was succeeded Oct. 1, 2013, by Chesapeake Employers Insurance Co., a private nonprofit company. At that time, Oaks opted to change his status from public employee to private employee, ending the contributions to his state pension, said Thomas J. Phelan, Chesapeake’s president and chief executive officer.
Oaks’ financial disclosure statements, filed by legislators annually with both the General Assembly’s Joint Committee on Legislative Ethics and the Maryland State Ethics Commission, offer few clues as to how the U.S. Probation Office arrived at valuing his worth at more than $1.5 million.
He owns just one property, a rowhouse in the 500 block of Normandy Avenue in West Baltimore, assessed by the state at $70,000. No other financial interests are listed in the disclosures.
The government’s case against Oaks centered on his interactions with “Mike Henley,” an FBI undercover source who posed as a Texas businessman interested in building apartments in Baltimore.
In return for three payments totaling $15,300, Oaks twice used his General Assembly letterhead to falsely promote a “Henley” project to a U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development official, another FBI front, unbeknownst to the lawmaker.
The third time, Oaks asked 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 the pre-filed bond bill so that he could show his bank he had political support for his housing project, he told the lawmaker.
Those activities took place before Oaks knew he was the focus of the federal probe, which he finally learned about on Jan. 9, 2017, when confronted by FBI agents, who told him he had been under investigation for two years.
Oaks then agreed to wear a body wire and record his telephone calls for the government.
In March 2017, however, while he was supposed to be cooperating with federal investigators, he tipped off the target of a criminal investigation of the bail-bonds industry, known in court documents only as Person #1, to the existence of a corruption probe.
Upon realizing Oaks had warned the target, the government charged him in a criminal complaint April 7, 2017, with one count of wire fraud.
A little more than a month later, on May 31, 2017, he was indicted on nine felony counts related to the bribery scheme.
Later, on Nov. 15, 2017, he was charged in a superseding indictment with an additional felony count, obstruction of justice, stemming from the tip-off.
The following day, he resigned his position as state accounts manager with the Chesapeake Employers Insurance Co.
Oaks continued serving in the Maryland Senate until March 29, when he resigned before pleading guilty to two of the 10 felony counts against him.
In sentencing Oaks two months ago, Bennett seemed particularly perturbed at his deliberately undermining the FBI’s investigation after agreeing to cooperate.
“A good two years of this sentence is the obstruction of justice,” Bennett said at the time.
The judge also ordered Oaks to pay a fine of $30,000, plus a $200 special assessment. Oaks already was ordered last month by the court, at the urging of prosecutors, to forfeit $5,000 of the bribes he pleaded guilty to taking.
Upon completion of his prison term, Oaks will be subject to three years of supervised release and must complete 80 hours of community service.
Oaks was most recently a member of the House of Delegates for 22 years, until Feb. 10, 2017, when he was appointed to the Maryland Senate, replacing Gladden.
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.