By Stephen Janis and J.K. Schmid, Special to the AFRO
Storm clouds descended on Baltimore, Tuesday around 2 p.m. A black haze reached down to obscure the topmost floors of the World Trade Center. Lightning flashed and thunder louder than the trucks lumbering down Pratt Street. But the rain hadn’t come yet.
A political career that spanned nearly four decades came to an ignominious end July 17 when former State Sen. Nathaniel “Nat” Oaks was sentenced to three and half years in federal prison for accepting bribes and obstructing justice. Upon his release, Oaks must also submit to three years of state supervision. It’s a grim forecast that will shadow Oaks, 71, almost into his 80s.
Oaks was also ordered to pay a $30,000 fine and to perform 80 hours of community service.
Oaks has 60 days to report to Federal Correctional Institution-a prison of his own choosing. Before the worst comes, Oaks took shelter at Luna Del Sea Steak & Bistro, 300 Pratt St. on July 17.
Tucked in the back, past the bar and the restaurant’s booths, in Luna’s banquet hall, Oaks broke bread with around 40 friends and supporters after his defeat in court.
“Good people make mistakes,” said Anthony McCarthy, former media representative for Mayor Catherine E. Pugh and former AFRO editor, told the AFRO. “Nathaniel Oaks still has a lot to contribute to the community. Those people who truly know him have already forgiven him and are ready to join him for the next chapter in his life.”
The sentence comes after Oaks pleaded guilty to a series of federal charges, the result of an investigation that included wiretaps, business owners working as FBI informants and efforts by Oaks to tip off a target of the probe which resulted in additional charges.
Charges from federal prosecutors depicted Oaks as a politician who was willing to sell influence in exchange for cash, and who attempted to stymie the investigation after he agreed to cooperate.
In a series of meetings with a lobbyist, Oaks negotiated cash payments of $10,300 to assist a business working with the FBI to obtain a contract with the Department of Housing and Urban Development. Oaks eventually wrote a letter on the company’s behalf and later introduced a bill that would have authorized a $250,000 bond to fund the project which netted him an additional $5,000 payment.
After Oaks was indicted, he agreed to cooperate with the FBI and wear a wire. But, investigators caught the West Baltimore politician tipping off the intended target, which resulted in a superseding indictment and additional charges of obstructing justice. Oaks also reversed on his agreement to cooperate with the investigation.
During sentencing WBAL-TV reported that Judge Richard Bennett said Oaks’ efforts to obstruct an ongoing investigation factored into his decision to impose a lengthier sentence.
“To obstruct an FBI investigation is as serious as the underlying case,” Bennett said before handing down the sentence.
The statutory minimum in these kinds of cases is 8-10 years. The defense asked for 18 months.
“[Bennett] was still stuck on the one thing,” Larry Young, former Maryland State Senator and host of WOLB’s The Larry Young Morning Show, told the AFRO. “This judge wanted to send a signal to Nat Oaks: He should not have told the federal FBI he was going to cooperate and reverse himself. And he hung to that.”
Rather than resign, Larry Young was expelled from the Maryland State Senate over ethics allegations in 1998. He was acquitted at trial.
“To anyone in that courtroom, it was very clear that he was looking at that 18 months, but he put on the additional years because of that,” Young said.
Young was one of 40 character witnesses to write a letter to Judge Bennett on behalf of Oaks.
The sentence marks the end of a career that was forged in the Edmondson Village community of West Baltimore. Even early in his career Oaks was no stranger to controversy.
First elected to the state legislator as a delegate to the 41st district in 1983, Oaks lost his seat in 1989 after he was accused of double billing the state for personal expenses.
But, Oaks won the seat back in 1994, and served as a delegate until 2017 when Governor Larry Hogan appointed him to replace retiring State Sen. Lisa Gladden.
Still, even facing charges, Oaks managed to weigh in on the most recent election.
After a group of 41st district constituents won a court order to have him removed from the 2018 primary ballot, Atty. Gen. Brian Frosh successfully persuaded the Maryland Court of Appeals to keep him on it.
The move prompted criticism that keeping Oaks on the ballot was an attempt to split Black votes in a contentious Senate race between former Del. Jill Carter and newcomer JD Merrill, who has ties to the former Gov. Martin O’Malley through marriage to his daughter Grace who also works for the Attorney General’s office.
Carter ultimately prevailed, but Oaks still garnered roughly 1,000 votes in a race decided by roughly 2,000 votes.
Young, the first Black chair of a standing committee, Environmental Matters, worked with Oaks in the Senate.
“I tend to be a consensus builder, and moderate, Nat’s gung-ho, ‘let’s get it done now,’ and so, it was like, if you don’t want Nat Oaks on your ass, you’ve gotta talk to LY,” Young said. “The caucus is gonna miss him, because not everyone in that caucus has the ability to stand and tell the other folks this is wrong, this is unfair, and you’re gonna respect us. And that was him, Joan Carter Conway were two of the few that had kind of discipline and character about them, and that’s going to be missed, in that caucus.”
Oaks came to the front of the restaurant to greet the AFRO but declined interview or comment.
“The AFRO never writes anything good about me, so no thank you,” Oaks said.
The rain came shortly thereafter.