Nat Oaks seemed to strongly sense something was up on December 7, 2015.
After all, the 70-year old veteran politician grew up in, “The Village,” in Southwest Baltimore, attended Edmondson High School and officially entered Baltimore’s brutal political arena in 1983, when he was elected to the House of Delegates representing the 41st District of the city. Five years later, by the end of 1988 Oaks had been convicted in Baltimore City Circuit Court, for theft and misconduct in office, charges linked to him stealing around $10,000 from a re-election fund.
Sean Yoes (Courtesy Photo)
So, he knew the game as well as anybody by the end of the 1980’s. He clearly knew the game well enough to get re-elected to the House in 1994, despite his troubles.
Perhaps, that’s why on on December 7, 2015 (Pearl Harbor Day!), Oaks sounded suspicious when he was speaking to a man he thought was an out of town businessman who wanted to make some money in Baltimore. Unfortunately, for Oaks that man turned out to be an undercover FBI agent investigating Oaks for suspected misconduct and ultimately endeavoring to put him in prison for several years. An excerpt from the December 7 conversation, as detailed in the public affidavit, follows:
Agent: “When I come in town, I’m looking to make some money now. I think I know the landscape a little bit.”
Oaks: “Okay. Plus, there’s something else. Once you get in town, I don’t wanna necessarily talk a whole lot of stuff on the phone, but when you get in town, there’s another kind of thing I wanna, wanna kind of talk to you about.”
According to the U.S. Attorney for Maryland, the veteran lawmaker engaged in a series of conversations and meetings with two men, one who was the FBI agent and another who was cooperating with the FBI, from September of 2015 to September of 2016, which ultimately led Oaks to allegedly accept cash in exchange for his official influence as a legislator.
The feds argue Oaks supplied the agent posing as an out of town businessman with two letters on official government letterhead, which contained false information about state funding for a HUD project in exchange for money. They also claim he lied about sponsoring legislation that would secure state funding. In total, the U.S. Attorney says Oaks collected about $15,300 on payoffs for his assistance.
The government’s affidavit supporting the charge of, “honest services wire fraud,” is a fascinating glimpse into the mind of a man who seems to know he is being set up.
However, by March 16, 2016, Oaks seemed defiant, despite his suspicions.
Agent: “I just need a relationship. That you taking care of me. I got your back. Now, how much? You, you don’t want to say a number and I don’t want to go crazy…Some kind of number, right?”
Oaks: “Yeah. Right. Right. I hear you. I hear you well.”
Agent: “Well, if you trying to speak in code to me, I got it loud and clear.”
Agent: “You don’t need…”
Agent: “That’s why we need to work out no trail.”
Oaks: “That’s right. That’s right…and we will de…we will determine what, what, what’s what.”
Oaks: “Can’t nobody come back and say I got you on tape. You ain’t got me on tape saying a mother f—— thing about mother f—.”
Agent: “See, that’s why I know you all right (laughs).”
According to the feds, the now infamous, “tootsie pop,” incident took place on April 28, 2016, which Oaks’ detractors argue may have sealed his fate. The government says when their agent asked Oaks how much he wanted to be compensated, the legislator placed a chocolate tootsie pop in his mouth. When the agent held up five fingers to suggest a payment of $5,000, Oaks allegedly made an upward motion with his thumb to indicate he wanted more. The feds say on May 11, 2016 the agent gave Oaks $5,000 in cash in a hotel room.
Of course, Oaks is innocent until proven guilty in a court of law and his supporters may argue entrapment or the broader narrative of Black legislators across the nation being targeted by the government, while their White counterparts, engaged in similar nefarious acts, operate with relative impunity.
But, the truth is Black people have been targeted in America for centuries, so there’s that.
Ultimately, I bet Oaks, the resilient, hustling politician known to be a tireless campaigner, wishes he had listened to that inner voice informed by decades of street wisdom and political battles. That voice seemed to be telling Oaks, `They’re setting you up Nat.’ I bet Oaks wished he had listened to that voice and never put that sucker in his mouth.
Sean Yoes is a senior contributor for the AFRO and host and executive producer of AFRO First Edition, which airs Monday through Friday 5 p.m.-7 p.m. on WEAA, 88.9.