I’d mentioned previously that the state Ethics Commission investigation of campaign contributions to former judicial candidate Mike Maggio of Conway had established that former Sen. Gilbert Baker, then a UCA lobbyist, was the bagman for money shipped by Fort Smith nursing home owner Michael Morton to Maggio and many other judicial and political candidates.
Debra Hale-Shelton of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette dug into the newly released files of that investigation yesterday. They confirm Baker as bagman — in great detail — but also reveal that Morton and Baker apparently lied to a news reporter. Shocking, I know.
In interviews with the newspaper earlier, Baker and Morton threw Linda Flanagin, an employee of a private lobbying firm once headed by Baker on the side of his UCA job, under the bus. It was she who solicited Morton to support Maggio, they indicated. Baker knew nothing about it.
Nah, it wasn’t like that at all. Baker was at Brave New Restaurant with Flanagin when they ran into Morton. Baker asked Morton to support Maggio. Baker orchestrated the donations — timed felicitously with a favorable ruling Maggio was about to issue on a lawsuit against one of Morton’s nursing homes. Morton wrote checks as Baker instructed. Money was sent to Baker for deposit in various PACs he’d created with Little Rock lawyer Chris Stewart (my original post gave his last name incorrectly as Thomas). Baker shook down Morton for more money when Maggio drew an opponent.
So, it would appear from the news article, Morton and Baker lied to the D-G reporter. Faced with official investigators asking questions under oath, they told a different story.
It is no crime to lie to a newspaper report. The larger affair of massive contributions through cooked-up PACs at suspicious times is a smelly business. But, also, on the surface, it could be perfectly legal under the state’s porous ethics laws. Bundlers like Baker round up money for political candidates all the time, judges particularly. Such goodwill gestures are expected to be appreciated in various ways.
Maggio was before the Ethics Commission for a truly minor thing — an apparent computation error that led him to accept some contributions modestly over the limits. He paid a small fine for that minor transgression. All the related stuff was just lagniappe — unless somebody had wanted to say they paid Maggio money for a favorable court ruling. Which of course no one did.
The ancillary business of Baker the Bagman is relevant to the question of whether you can allege a quid pro quo in contributions to Maggio and his ultimate ruling in Morton’s favor in the nursing home case — reducing of a $5.2 million unanimous jury verdict to $1 million over suffering of an elderly woman left untreated to die in a Morton nursing home. A federal investigation continues on that question.
But there is so much more to be revealed that the D-G article today only touches on. As I’ve reported in some detail before, Baker was a bagman for many candidates — 28 he told the Ethics Commission. They ran heavily to judges, but the Morton money also coursed into campaigns of such Republican legislative candidates as Stacy Hurst, running for a House seat in Little Rock, and Sen. Jason Rapert. Lots of judicial candidates got money. I’ve mentioned them frequently before. Morton money was the single biggest source of support for Rhonda Wood, unopposed for a state Supreme Court seat. Baker, a longtime paid advocate for forces hoping to make it harder to sue for damages, was looking to leverage his clout into both judicial and legislative chambers. He bragged, perhaps excessively, that he’d raised $100,000 for Stacy Hurst. And, what a deal, he had a $132,000 publicly financed job at UCA to support him in his work. His hiring — and initial defense — by UCA President Tom Courtway remains a blemish on Courtway’s otherwise good record of lifting UCA out of its mire of controversy.
Maggio dropped out of his race for reasons unrelated to the ethics probe and he’s unlikely to ever rule in a court of law again before his term ends Dec. 31, thanks to a preventive state Supreme Court order. Baker lost his lobbying job at UCA, but remains on the music faculty thanks to a tenure agreement. Morton continues to operate many nursing homes and continues to contribute to political candidates.
Morton told ethics investigators he gave Maggio money because he was asked and he felt Judge Maggio was “following the law.” That statement, like the new version of the Flanagin-Baker-Morton restaurant encounter, was also presumably given under oath.