U.S. District Judge Brian Miller today heard arguments over whether former Circuit Judge Mike Maggio of Conway can withdraw his guilty plea in a federal bribery case. Miller said he was uncertain about a key legal issue at the crux of the defense’s motion to withdraw the plea: Whether or not the federal bribery statute to which Maggio pleaded guilty in January 2015 even applies to the former circuit judge’s actions.
Miller said that the question was important enough to require careful study of federal precedents before making a ruling, and that it could be weeks before he issues a written order. “Ultimately, that’s what I’m going to rule on,” he said. “Does this statute apply, or does it not?”
The federal statute in question is 18 U.S.C. § 666, “theft or bribery concerning programs receiving federal funds.” A year ago, Maggio pleaded guilty to breaking that law. But today, Maggio’s new defense attorney, James Hensley, told Judge Miller that because “[Maggio’s] office … never received federal funds” in regards to the specific situation in which he has been accused of bribery, “I don’t believe this court even had jurisdiction to accept that plea.”
The basis for the federal bribery charges is this: As a circuit judge, Maggio was an agent of the Arkansas judicial system, which receives a portion of its funding from federal streams. Thus, Maggio’s alleged corruption involves the misuse of federal funds. But Hensley argued that because Maggio’s alleged corruption concerned a jury verdict in a civil case, federal funds didn’t actually come into play in this specific instance. (Prosecutors say Maggio received campaign contributions from nursing home owner Michael Morton around the same time the judge massively reduced the financial compensation a jury had awarded to the family of a woman who died in a Morton-owned nursing home due to neglect.)
Maggio therefore should have never entered the guilty plea and should now be allowed to withdraw it, Hensley argued.
Hensley cited a case decided by the U.S. Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals, United States v. Whitfield, in which two Mississippi state judges convicted of federal bribery successfully challenged the application of § 666 with a similar line of argument. Because the judges accepted bribes in regards to civil cases that had nothing to do with federal funds, they said, no federal funds were actually involved.
Judge Miller said his initial thought was that he “would find it very difficult to set aside a guilty plea,” given the fact that Maggio was a judge himself and should have understood what he was doing when he accepted the deal offered by prosecutors. “He walked into the courtroom, raised his right hand and said ‘I was bribed,'” Miller recounted today. But, he said, Hensley’s argument required him to examine case law carefully about whether the federal bribery statute really can be applied in this instance.
Federal prosecutor Julie Peters argued § 666 should be applied broadly, citing U.S. Supreme Court precedent as well as a case before the federal Eighth Circuit (the federal appeals circuit for Arkansas). “There need not be any link between the federal money and the corrupt act” for federal bribery charges to apply, she said. From the prosecution’s response to Maggio’s amended motion to withdraw his guilty plea, filed yesterday:
The bottom line is that Maggio was an agent of the Twentieth Judicial District. When Maggio issued an order on the motion for remittitur, he was doing exactly what a judge in the Twentieth Judicial District is elected, paid, and supposed to do – rule on cases. And when he accepted a bribe to make that ruling, he violated § 666. Because Maggio’s order granting remittitur in a civil case was absolutely in connection with the business of the State of Arkansas, Twentieth Judicial District, Whitfield provides no support to Maggio’s effort to withdraw his guilty plea.
The prosecution has said Maggio broke his plea deal by failing to cooperate with the government (potentially meaning a tougher sentence) and that’s the only reason he’s now trying to back out of the plea.
“This defendant … chose to take the bribe. The only reason he chose to plead guilty is because he is guilty,” Peters told Judge Miller today.
Miller said that the question was “important enough … that I need to get out a written order,” which he said he hoped to have prepared “in the next couple of weeks.”
“If he can be charged under this statute, I’m denying [the motion to withdraw the guilty plea],” Miller said. But if the federal judge comes to the conclusion that § 666 shouldn’t be applied to Maggio’s actions, the plea deal may be off.