ANNAPOLIS, Md. (AP) — A Maryland state senator accepted illegal payments in exchange for using his position to facilitate business deals, using the word "lollipop" as code for every $1,000 he expected to collect, U.S. prosecutors said Friday.
Sen. Nathaniel Oaks, a 70-year-old Democrat who lost his House seat in 1989 after being convicted of theft and misconduct charges only to be re-elected again in 1994, has been charged with honest services wire fraud. The charge stems from an investigation dating to 2015, when Oaks was a member of the House representing a district in Baltimore.
Oaks entered a federal courtroom in Baltimore in handcuffs and pleaded not guilty. He was released on his own recognizance. Stuart Simms, Oaks' lawyer, did not return a call seeking comment. Oaks faces up to 20 years in prison if convicted.
Oaks was paid $10,300 for his help with development and business-related opportunities, an affidavit said. One of them was a U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development project that a confidential FBI source expressed interest in. Authorities say Oaks was paid another $5,000 for filing a bond bill in the legislature.
The affidavit says a person cooperating with investigators introduced Oaks in September 2015 to an FBI confidential source, who portrayed himself as an out-of-town businessman interested in obtaining contracts in Baltimore through a minority-owned business. The company is a real business operated by a different cooperating defendant who is helping the FBI. The investigation involved telephone and in-person conversations with Oaks when development opportunities were discussed.
The two talked about properties for sale in Baltimore that Oaks had shown the source as potential sites for a prospective U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development project. The source told Oaks he wanted to get the properties for "pennies on the dollar," and that he hoped to get financial support from the city. In a telephone call, Oaks said he could help.
"I might need to be the one in the background to help ah, help ah, with my foot ah, not necessarily on their neck, but around their head some kind of way," Oaks said, according to the affidavit.
The following year, Oaks and the confidential source discussed paying the lawmaker for his assistance, the affidavit said. Oaks allegedly sent two letters on his official letterhead supporting the HUD project that the source told Oaks he was interested in.
The affidavit describes Oaks as being careful not to openly talk about payments. During an April 2016 meeting when the two discussed ways Oaks could be of help, Oaks placed a lollipop in his mouth. The source then held up five fingers to signify a $5,000 payment.
"In response, Oaks shook his head from side to side and then made an upward motion with his thumb," the affidavit said.
When the cooperating source later asked Oaks how much he should be paid for filing a $250,000 bond bill for a project, he asked the lawmaker: "How many lollipops should I bring," a question Oaks avoided answering directly, saying he had faith in him. The affidavit says the source and Oaks had established the word "lollipop" as a code word for $1,000, stemming from the time he put a Tootsie Pop in his mouth to halt open discussion of monetary amounts.
Oaks represented Baltimore in the House from 1983 until early 1989. In 1988, he was convicted of theft and misconduct in office charges for stealing thousands of dollars from his re-election fund. He received a five-year suspended sentence and lost his House seat as a result. But in 1994, Oaks was re-elected to the House, where he served until February, when he was appointed to replace a senator who retired.
Maryland's legislature has been marked by scandal from the very start of this year's 90-day session.
Gary Brown, a Democrat, was indicted by state prosecutors in January on charges of making illegal campaign contributions— one day before he was scheduled to be sworn in as a Baltimore delegate.
Then, federal prosecutors announced a former delegate, William Campos, had pleaded guilty to bribery and conspiracy in a public corruption case involving the liquor industry in Prince George's County. The next day, less than an hour before the session started, Del. Michael Vaughn abruptly announced his resignation. Last month, authorities announced a federal grand jury had indicted Vaughn, a Democrat, on bribery charges involving liquor sales in Prince George's County.