The Arkansas Democrat-Gazette’s Debra Hale Shelton reports this morning further details of Arkansas Supreme Court Justice Rhonda Wood‘s connection to the federal bribery case against former Republican Sen. Gilbert Baker. Intriguing detail: The U.S. attorney’s office says more information will be revealed at Baker’s trial.
Baker has been indicted for bribing then-Circuit Judge Mike Maggio with campaign contributions from nursing home owner Michael Morton to reduce a $5.2 million jury verdict in a negligence case against one of Morton’s nursing homes. Morton has not been charged. Maggio is serving a 10-year prison sentence, but as we indicated earlier, he was moved from federal prison to a private facility closer to Little Rock (in Tennessee) to provide new cooperation with prosecutors. That cooperation immediately preceded Baker’s indictment last week.
The indictment cited, as I noted at the time, Wood’s communication with Baker by text messages the day before Maggio reduced the verdict by $4.2 million. She was, at the time, close to Maggio as colleagues on the bench in Faulkner County. They campaigned together — she for Supreme Court, he for Court of Appeals. She received $48,000 in contributions from Morton arranged by Baker (who also likely was key in a number of other contributions by Morton to judicial candidates in Baker’s home in Faulkner County.)
Now to the news. Shelton asked Wood about her text messages to Baker. Wood said she no longer has them and can’t remember what they might have said. But she said she had asked the U.S. attorney’s office for them so that she could release them to clear the air.
John Ray White, criminal chief of the U.S. attorney’s office, is acting as U.S. attorney in the Baker case.
Speaking through Assistant U.S. Attorney Pat Harris, White declined to comment late Thursday on Wood’s statement.
Asked if the prosecution has the content of the text messages, Harris said, “It will all come out at trial.”
Wood has stoutly defended her propriety in this matter previously. She has also defended sitting on nursing home cases involving Morton, in part by saying she returned some of Morton’s contributions. Her race ended up being unopposed, however.
Wood was once considered a prime candidate for the federal judgeship from which Leon Holmes has retired. The judgeship remains vacant because of problems that occurred with at least three candidates. Her connection to the Maggio case, however innocent, has long been thought a factor in a nomination of her not going forward. Another Conway candidate for the job, Circuit Judge Troy Braswell, also has apparently fallen by the wayside for unknown reasons. It so happens that he, too, was a recipient of Morton money in his first race for a judgeship, but only a relatively paltry $8,000 of the more than $60,000 he raised. Nor was Wood the only member of the Arkansas Supreme Court to receive Morton money.
Justice Karen Baker got $20,000 of the $27,000 she raised in 2014 from Morton. Justice Jo Hart got $23,000 from Morton to pay off debt from her last race and thanked Morton at her investiture. Justice Courtney Goodson got $91,000 from the nursing home lobby in her first race for Supreme Court. Justice Robin Wynne got $7,700. Justice Shawn Womack made a race for the court after a constitutional amendment prohibited corporate contributions, but as a Republican
As far as we know, however, Wood is the only one whose text messages to Gilbert Baker might be in the hands of U.S. prosecutors investigating public corruption. It is unclear if the prosecutor possesses only the record of an exchange of texts between Wood and Baker or also the texts themselves (and if there might be messages between Wood and Maggio). Wood said she has cooperated fully with the Justice Department.
I think we can agree none of this presents a good appearance for the Arkansas justice system, particularly the election of judges,