I was interested to hear over the weekend that former Republican Sen. Gilbert Baker was a key money man in several political races this year. Interested because you have a taxpayer-financed lobbyist delving deeply into the election of people who set his employer’s budget and decide cases that might have a bearing on that institution.
Baker is executive assistant to the president of University of Central Arkansas. He was extended his $132,000 job offer by UCA President Tom Courtway even before he left the legislature at the end of 2012. It struck me then as a mite unseemly, even if Baker was a former faculty member and associate dean at UCA. He pretty quickly put aside early assurances that he wouldn’t be a lobbyist to do just that. It was legal. He was among a class of term-limited legislators exempted from a new law requiring a cooling-off period before a legislator could hit the revolving door for the lobby.
Baker has always been deeply political. He’s very friendly with the big business lobby, as a prime sponsor of legislation to make it harder to file damage suits (aka “tort reform.)
Lesser known is his paid work for Religious Right strategist Ralph Reed’s Faith and Freedom Coalition, a shadowy dark money outfit (organized as a 501c4 advocacy group under tax law) that paid Baker, according to tax filings, almost $60,000 as the group’s only paid employee in 2012, while he was still a legislator. We now know, thanks to the tax form, that the coalition, controlled by Baker, spent $200,000 that year electing Republicans to the Arkansas legislature. And now he’s moved seamlessly to a public paycheck while continuing the same sort of electoral work, if on a volunteer basis. He says he no longer draws pay from the Coalition.
I called Baker after being told by several people that he was responsible for a big percentage of the as-yet-unreported $100,000 kitty Little Rock City Director Stacy Hurst says she’s put together for her House District 35 race (as a Republican). Baker says he has no role — official or unofficial — in the Hurst campaign But yes, he helped organize a successful fund-raiser at Albert Braunfisch’s house in Little Rock. (Her report is not yet on file.) He insists he’s all about higher education and finding candidates who share that passion, of whatever party. He likes what he sees in Hurst.
As a state employee, he may give money to candidates and work for them so long as he’s not on taxpayer time. He says he’s spoken with Courtway about his activities and Courtway is fine with them. (Courtway reportedly told Baker he gave money to Mark Pryor.) Baker said he’s particularly interested in recruiting “moderate” Republicans who support higher education. Hurst is said to be a moderate, but is avoiding talking about it much until the primary filing period is over, for fear of encouraging an opponent waving teabags. “We have to have people to work to get stuff done and nothing gets done except in the middle,” Baker said. He also mentioned the necessity of approving the private option expansion of Medicaid, without which higher education likely will feel a budget crunch.
OK, then. Higher ed. But what about Baker’s work to raise money for Appeals Court Judge Rhonda Wood, so far the only candidate to announce for Position 7 on the Arkansas Supreme Court? She’s just a home-town gal whom Baker has long known and admired, he said. It has nothing to do with her potential outlook on tort reform. He said he’d helped arrange a Conway fund-raiser for Wood, but wouldn’t reveal the precise date, place and attendees. You have to wonder if some Conway nursing home interests on her report were part of that effort. (Nursing homes, if you didn’t know, love tort reform.)
Check out Wood’s first major campaign report if you get a chance. She reported raising $132,757. Well more than half — $70,000 at least — came from nursing home businesses and operators. Her report is a textbook example, by the way, of the need for campaign finance reform. Many contributions were different corporate enttities of the same nursing home outfit, such as nursing home operator Michael Morton of Fort Smith. Remember Morton? He was the beneficiary of some tasty home-cooking in another Conway courtroom, where Judge Michael Maggio, another Baker homey who’s running for Court of Appeals, set aside a $5 million unanimous jury verdict against a Morton nursing home that failed to provide doctor-ordered hospital care for a patient who died in excruciating pain. Morton’s nursing home had already spent up most of its insurance coverage on its legal defense, thus making the $1 million award even less meaningful. The jury verdict shocked Maggio’s conscience, he said. That’s the kind of conscience nursing home operators love to see on the bench.
Maggio, by the way, reported $51,450 in contributions in his first campaign report. At least $17,000 of it came from the nursing home industry. Maggio didn’t get money from the Morton nursing home that benefited from his reduced judgment. But Wood did. Like Wood, Maggio is unopposed despite a record of injudicious and unethical activities.
PS — No sign of Gilbert Baker in this race as far as I know, but Robin Wynne, a candidate for another open Supreme Court seat, reported $33,345 in contributions, with $10,000 from nursing homes, including $4,000 from Michael Morton and a related company. He at least had a trial lawyer or two on his list, too.