State Sen. Nathaniel T. Oaks pleaded not guilty to obstruction of justice charges Thursday in federal court, where his attorneys argued that charge should be severed from nine others accusing him of bribery and fraud.
Oaks, D-Baltimore City, appeared in U.S. District Court in Baltimore to be arraigned on the most recent charge after being indicted in November.
Judge Richard D. Bennett did not rule on Oaks’ motion for severance Thursday but said he plans to issue his opinion by Tuesday.
Oaks, who is still serving in the Maryland General Assembly which began its 2018 session Wednesday, declined to comment after the hearing.
Attorneys for Oaks moved to sever the obstruction charge, which accuses Oaks of tipping off the target of an FBI investigation after agreeing to cooperate, because they say it is unrelated to the charges on which he was previously indicted stemming from a phony development scheme.
Oaks was first charged in April with wire fraud and accepting illegal payments and then indicted on additional charges in May, including accepting bribes in exchange for using his position to influence business matters for another individual.
Another superseding indictment filed in November then alleged that Oaks was confronted by FBI agents in January 2017 and told he had been the target of a fraud investigation, at which time he agreed to work with them to record conversations with an individual identified as “Person #1.”
Lucius T. Outlaw III, a federal public defender representing Oaks, told Bennett on Thursday there is no connection between Oaks’ alleged actions to accept bribes for his own benefit and his later actions to accept bribes as instructed by the government.
“You can’t just say, ‘Well, it’s all bribery so it’s all related,'” Outlaw said.
Federal rules permit joining two or more offenses if they are connected with or constitute parts of a common scheme or plan, which the government argued was present in this case because Oaks later allegedly admitted to taking payments from Person #1.
Assistant U.S. Attorney Kathleen O. Gavin said the investigation into Oaks’ alleged conduct of accepting bribes in exchange for official actions includes his interactions with Person #1, calling it a “related series of events.”
Bennett questioned the viability of an 8th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals case cited by prosecutors from 1978, which found joinder appropriate in the prosecution of a Missouri state senator for different acts stemming from misconduct while in office. The case was later partially abrogated on a separate issue by a U.S. Supreme Court case in 1987 (which lead to the mail fraud conviction of former Maryland governor Marvin Mandel being overturned).
Bennett called the 1987 case “an earthquake” in public corruption prosecutions and questioned the wisdom of entwining a difficult constitutional issue the may require appellate review in this case over one charge.
Outlaw also argued even if joinder were proper, it prejudices Oaks because he may want to testify in his defense about the allegation that he tipped off Person #1 because there are no recordings of those conversations. Outlaw said the volume of evidence on the other counts may also improperly influence how jurors approach the obstruction charge.
In court filings earlier this week, attorneys for Oaks accused prosecutors of conducting a “pre-trial smear job to convict Senator Oaks in the press and to taint and prejudice the jury pool against him,” citing information documented in the government’s response to the severance motion.
Bennett on Thursday questioned Outlaw on what information the government revealed which would not have been made public during the pretrial motions process. Outlaw explained the government made unnecessary allegations and represents them as fact, including saying that Oaks confessed his conduct to the FBI.
The judge disagreed.
“I reviewed all of this motion and I don’t see anything here that warrants that kind of language,” Bennett said.
Outlaw apologized for his tone and Bennett accepted on behalf of the prosecutors.
“There’s no pretrial smear job here and let’s leave it at that,” he said.
According to prosecutors, when confronted, Oaks confessed to accepting payments in exchange for using his influence, at the time as a delegate, to benefit a developer. Oaks also allegedly confessed to accepting gifts from Person #1, who was “actively pushing for certain legislation in the upcoming legislative session that would be favorable to the bail bond industry.”
Outlaw objected to the inclusion of the supposed confessions, which were not recorded. Those confessions drew the attention of Gov. Larry Hogan, who referred to Oaks’s alleged admissions to taking bribes during a press conference announcing “proposed legislation to enhance accountability and transparency.”
Similarly, advocates for bail reform cited Oaks as a reason the legislature should not take up any bills profiting the bail bond industry this session.
Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller said Tuesday he would refer the case to the state ethics panel.