The Michael Morton-financed pipeline of nursing home money to judicial candidates in Faulkner County just doesn’t quit.
I’ve reported previously on the dependence on nursing home money in the campaign reports of Rhonda Wood, a former Faulkner circuit judge who’s unopposed for state Supreme Court; Supreme Court Justice Karen Baker, a former Faulkner circuit judge; Faulkner Circuit Judge Mike Maggio, recently forced out of a Court of Appeals race by scandal and, then yesterday, the heavy reliance on Morton nursing home cash by Troy Braswell, who hopes to succeed Maggio by defeating Joe Don Winningham. Nursing home money has also benefited another Supreme Court candidate, Robin Wynne of Fordyce.
Add another: Doralee Chandler, who hopes to defeat Judge H.G. Foster in a District 20 race for another division in Faulkner County. She reported receipt of $12,950 on her first campaign contribution report. $12,000 of it came from Morton, the Fort Smith-based nursing home magnate, or related nursing home companies.
Chandler leaves footprints familiar to followers of the Rhonda Wood posse, as I’ve come to know it. Many use the same Republican-led political consulting firm, Impact Management. They make the same rounds of Republican political committees. Though running in non-partisan races, they seemingly have set out to brand themselves as Republicans, as Wood has done from her first race for court by using Mike Huckabee in robocalls. They’re all helped immensely by “tort reform” money, particularly from nursing homes. They are spoken of warmly by former Republican Sen. Gilbert Baker of Conway, the $132,000-a-year publicly paid lobbyist for the University of Central Arkansas. You’ll recall that UCA President Tom Courtway has assured me that it is only in his spare time that Baker bundles campaign contributions for Republican candidates and the right sort of judicial candidates and works for the private LRM Consulting he organized. Another coincidence! LRM uses as its legal agent the same lawyer, Chris Stewart, who did the incorporation work for nursing home PACs created the same day Mike Maggio put in motion legal events that led to a $4.2 million reduction in a jury verdict against a Morton-managed nursing home in Greenbrier. (PS: Baker, on March 11, was replaced by James McAlister as the president of record of LRM Consulting.)
The Wood judicial coterie includes people favored by the Republican Party’s effort to elect judicial candidates, including Wood and Maggio, in 2012. Reports continue to circulate that Republican branding is expected in judicial races again this year (maybe even election-day “slates”), along with independent expenditures by “tort reform” lobbies in races from the bottom to the top of the judicial ballot. Republicans led the charge to make judicial races non-partisan in part because the races had been a reliable source of money, through filing fees, for the Democratic Party. Times have changed. Republicans want partisan judges now — at least in practice, if not technical label. Republicans realize even a Republican-majority legislature needs the right kind of judges to uphold some laws and overturn others — good and bad being in the eyes of the partisan beholders.
Michael Morton’s heavy hand in judicial races could come back to bite him. In 2009, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in a case from West Virginia, where a coal company essentially rented a judge through massive campaign contributions, that judges must not only recuse for actual bias but when it has been demonstrated that “extreme facts” create a “probability of bias.” Does the fact that a judge received more than 50 percent of campaign contributions from the nursing home industry require recusal? Expect to see this argued should such a case reach Wood or others in the Michael Morton wing of the Arkansas judiciary.
It is hard for a nursing home case not to involve Michael Morton. Unbelievable as it might seem, he’s a gubernatorial appointee to the Arkansas Health Services Permit Commission, which decides who gets nursing home permits in the state. By virtue of that appointment, he must make financial disclosures. For future cross-referencing while perusing campaign contribution lists: