A smiling Nathaniel T. Oaks emerged from a federal courtroom Tuesday afternoon in Baltimore with a bounce in his step, hugging and clasping hands with supporters, calling to a friend to reserve “the little room in the back” of a nearby restaurant.
Oaks, the disgraced Democratic state senator from Baltimore, was seemingly unfazed after learning he will soon spend three-and-a-half years in prison after pleading guilty earlier this year to corruption charges. Oaks was also sentenced to three-years supervised release and ordered to pay a $30,000 fine.
In asking for the restaurant reservation, Oaks said they were going to celebrate at Luna Del Sea, a steak and seafood bistro — the first meal of his last 60 days of freedom.
Oaks, 71, must report to a federal minimum security prison to be determined later — perhaps in Cumberland or one of two in New Jersey — by Sept. 17.
The bespectacled Oaks, wearing a tan three-piece suit and his trademark matching kufi, smiled and waved to supporters who came to U.S. District Court. At times, he seemed as if he was back on the floor of the House of Delegates or Senate as he pressed his palms together and held his hands at face level contemplating the arguments made by prosecutors and his own defense team.
Yet just before he was sentenced, Oaks stood and offered an apology, saying he was “broken, hurt and disappointed.”
“I apologize to my family, my constituents, my friends for my actions,” Oaks said. “I take full responsibility for what transpired.”
Bennett acknowledged Oaks’ work in the community but added that the senator’s actions diminished his value in his own community at a time when they needed a leader the most.
“The city of Baltimore, as you know, is hurting — hurting very badly,” he said.
Oaks’ case offered a chance to send a message, each side argued in turn.
For prosecutors, the public needed to see corrupt public officials held to a higher standard and penalized for breaking the law. For Oaks’ attorneys, the message was a single mistake — even an egregious one such as taking a bribe — doesn’t wipe away the good one has done in their lives or the potential for future contributions.
And U.S. District Court Judge Richard D. Bennett agreed: A message was in order.
Most troubling for Bennett was the obstruction of justice allegation against Oaks, a count that was dropped but which was included in the statement of facts agreed to when the senator pleaded guilty in March to one count each of wire fraud and honest services fraud related to an investigation involving a confidential informant for the FBI who posed as a developer
“That’s the white elephant in the corner that no one wants to deal with,” said Bennett.
Bennett said a sentence of 18 months to two years would have been appropriate for Oaks crimes if not for the obstruction of justice charge, which he said “weighed heavily” on him as he considered the case. “That cannot be countenanced,” he said in explaining why he was imposing a longer sentence.
Sending a message
Oaks, who was a member of the House of Delegates at the time of the investigation, was introduced to the informant, who went by the name Mike Henley, in September 2015.
The lawmaker and developer spoke on a number of occasions about housing developments in Oaks’ district. Henley asked Oaks to speak to a fictitious official with the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development, offering him a cash payment to do so.
Oaks wrote a letter on Henley’s behalf and sponsored a state bond bill. But the lawmaker openly worried that the FBI was monitoring his conversations and made Henley buy him a burner cellphone. Conversations on the phone and in person were frequently in code, with Oaks using hand signals or the word “lollipop” to refer to the amount he wanted to be paid. Prosecutors wrote that each “lollipop” represented a sum of $1,000.
Henley paid Oaks a total of $15,300 as part of the scheme, as originally charged in 2017.
Oaks initially agreed to work with the FBI after being confronted with his actions including accepting $15,300 in a phone development scheme.
Oaks reneged and waved off an unnamed lobbyist, who was the target of the investigation, from giving the senator a bribe at an Annapolis restaurant, destroying the case in the process, Bennett and prosecutors said.
Assistant U.S. Attorney Kathleen Gavin told Bennett that supporters of Oaks didn’t know the real man, one who carefully and intentionally sought to take bribes and season tickets to NFL games and meals and drinks and trips and communicated using a burner phone. Oaks’ actions, she said, erode make a cynical public distrust its government even more.
“We really need to send a message,” Garvin said. “A strong sentence sends a message to the community.
Part of that message included a large fine, she argued, perhaps as much as $300,000. The net worth of the ex-lawmaker, who once asked a lobbyist for $2,500 for car repairs, according to court records, was more than $1.5 million.
Lucious T. Outlaw III, one of Oaks’ public defenders, countered the offenses weren’t as serious as other high-profile elected officials convicted of federal corruption charges in the last decade.
“There will be another message that is sent if Mr. Oaks is sentenced to a sentence that is longer than other people,” Outlaw said.
More than 40 character witnesses wrote letters to Bennett on Oaks’ behalf, appealing for leniency. Some cited his’ good deeds for the community while in office. Others expressed concern for what they said was his failing health — Oaks said he has diabetes — and stress-related weight loss.
Oaks told the judge he no longer takes prescription medications because because he lost his job and has no insurance as a result of the indictment.