Mike Maggio, 54, the defrocked circuit judge who pleaded guilty to taking a bribe to reduce a verdict in a nursing home negligence case, was sentenced to 10 years in prison today, the maximum.
The government had also asked for a a restitution order of $4.2 million. The judge imposed no financial penalty.
U.S. District Judge Brian Miller said he wanted to impose the maximum because of the harm a dirty judge does to the system. “I put drug dealers in prison for five, ten, twenty years for standing on a corner selling crack cocaine,” he said. “What’s worse: A drug dealer on the corner or a dirty judge? A dirty judge is far more harmful to society than a dope dealer.” Corruption in the judicial system especially erodes public trust in the system, he said, because “a judge is the system.”
This came as something of a surprise. Judge Miller earlier had rejected technical arguments from the U.S. prosecutors asking for sentencing enhancements based on the size of the loss in the nursing home negligence case that brought about Maggio’s downfall. In that case, a jury had awarded $5.2 million to the family of the victim; as the presiding judge in the case, Maggio reduced the award to $1 million. The government argued the scale of Maggio’s criminal action should be defined by the $4.2 million by which he reduced the verdict, but Miller disagreed with that conclusion. Miller pointed out that judges reduce damages by some amount all the time. “I can’t say whether he would have remitted a portion even if he hadn’t had this [corrupt] arrangement,” Miller said.
Because Miller rejected the argument that the $4.2 million amount should guide sentencing, the prosecutors then adjusted their recommended prison sentence to 63 months, downward from the originally requested 120 months. But when it came to sentencing itself, Miller said he decided to depart from guidelines and instead give the maximum legally allowable amount of jail time after all — 120 months.
Maggio didn’t make a statement in court. His attorney, James Hensley, asked Miller for leniency, repeating points he’d made in a pre-sentencing memorandum. Hensley asked the court to show mercy, and said Maggio’s children in the courtroom were “looking for justice for their daddy.” They were watching to see how the justice system worked, he said. “Is it just hard … callous? … Or is there a level of humanity?” Maggio was seeking fairness from the court, Hensley said.
Julie Peters, the lead prosecutor, said that a number of family members of the victim in the nursing home negligence case were also in the gallery. She said she agreed with Hensley that “this is about the fair and impartial administration of justice … and that is what then-Judge Maggio took away when he took the bribe.” But Peters also said Maggio’s corrupt actions did more than just damage public faith in the courts — because his bribe came in the form of campaign donations, his behavior “undermines not just the judicial system but also the electoral system.” Miller agreed.
Maggio was ordered to report to prison May 23. The 10-year sentence will be followed by two years of supervised probation. After the sentencing, Hensley told reporters that his client plans to appeal. He has 14 days to do so.
Maggio entered a plea bargain in the case in January 2015, but the U.S. attorney’s office said he hasn’t cooperated. He was untruthful in some of his statements, the government said. That resulted in a high sentencing recommendation from the probation office, which prompted Maggio to attempt to withdraw his guilty plea. But Judge Miller earlier rejected that request on March 10.
In his original plea, Maggio admitted reducing a $5.2 million jury verdict against a Greenbrier nursing home owned by Michael Morton of Fort Smith after Gilbert Baker, a former Republican senator from Conway, had arranged multiple contributions from Morton to PACs that were to funnel the money to Maggio for a planned race for state Court of Appeals. Neither Baker nor Morton has been charged with a crime. Both deny wrongdoing. They were referred to as Individuals A and B in the Maggio indictment.
Maggio withdrew from the court of appeals race in the midst of an ethics investigation that ultimately led to his resignation from the bench for life. That ethics investigation was itself triggered by an unrelated matter: his numerous injudicious comments — sexist, racist, classist, chauvinistic — on an LSU fan website. He also revealed confidential information about actress Charlize Theron’s adoption of a child in Faulkner County.
The Arkansas Blog first reported the unusual verdict reduction by Maggio — from $5.2 million to $1 million for the family of Martha Bull, a woman who died after a nursing home failed to follow a doctor’s instruction to hospitalize her. Blue Hog Report, a blog by Little Rock lawyer Matt Campbell, subsequently pieced together the creation of multiple PACs and flow of money from Morton in Maggio’s direction around that time. Court filings since have shown the government found phone and text records that tied Maggio to others in what the government referred to this week as “criminal activities.”
Credible reports say others in state government, not necessarily directly related to Maggio’s handling of the nursing home case, have been subjects of the same grand jury probe. Abundant rumors have linked others to potential charges, but the government has not discussed any of those reports. Government lawyers had no comment after sentencing today.
Though he was sentenced to the maximum, federal rules allow Maggio to provide additional cooperation to the government in hopes of qualifying for a sentence reduction. It’s too early to say if that is a possibility.
A civil lawsuit is pending over the verdict reduction by the family of the woman who died in the nursing home. Tom Buchanan, the attorney representing the family, said the case is still in discovery, and there’s not yet a date set on the trial. Maggio was dismissed as a defendant because of immunity for official actions, but the suit is still pending against Morton and Baker.
Interesting how the Justice Department announced the verdict, though it did not mention (nor would it respond to questions about) the potential for additional charges:
As part of his plea agreement, Maggio admitted that in 2013, he served as an elected circuit judge for the state of Arkansas, 20th Judicial District, Second Division, and presided over a civil matter in Faulkner County, Arkansas, Circuit Court, in which a jury awarded a plaintiff
$5.2 million in damages against a nursing home company. Maggio admitted that, while the
company’s post-trial motions for new trial or to reduce the amount of damages awarded were pending, he formally announced his candidacy for the Arkansas Court of Appeals.
Two weeks later, the owner of the nursing home company donated approximately $24,000 to Maggio’s campaign, and the following day Maggio reduced the verdict to $1 million.
Before making his decision, Maggio admitted that a fundraiser for his campaign discussed the pending post-trial motions with him and told him that the company’s owner had committed money to support his campaign. As part of his plea, Maggio admitted that his decision to remit the judgment was caused by the donations and that he attempted to delete text messages between the fundraiser and himself after the media became aware of the bribes.