Michael Morton, the Fort Smith nursing home magnate, hasn’t let his connection to a scandal arising from his financial support of judicial candidates put him on the election sidelines this year.
Mike Maggio, a former judge in Conway, is serving a federal prison sentence for pleading guilty to taking a bribe — campaign contributions from Morton and related parties arranged by former Republican Sen. Gilbert Baker — to reduce a jury verdict against a Morton nursing home from $5.2 million to $1 million in a negligence case. Baker is awaiting trial on charges related to his role. Morton has not been charged and insisted he only made legitimate campaign contributions in hopes of electing good judges, not to get a favorable ruling from Maggio.
Reports have begun coming in on candidates for judicial seats in March. One was filed by Greg Magness, a Fort Smith lawyer and one of at least three candidates for a circuit judgeship to be vacated by retirement of Judge James Cox.
Magness’ first campaign report reported $29,250 in contributions, with $10,000 of that coming from Magness himself and two family members.
Of the remaining $19,250, $14,000, or more than 70 percent of nonfamily money, came from Morton or related individuals. Morton gave $2,800 and Magness got $2,800 each from Paralea Hursh and Jerry Sams, both affiliated with Morton’s Central Arkansas Nursing Centers. He received another $5,600, half for the March election and half for a runoff if necessary, from Richard Chapman of Premier Pharmacy Care, a business founded by Morton to serve nursing homes.
In 2014, Morton spent tens of thousands on judicial races funneled by Baker into PACs. He directed $40,000 to Supreme Court Justice Rhonda Wood as well as contributions to Supreme Court Justices Karen Baker and Jo Hart; Maggio in his aborted race for Court of Appeals, and several candidates for circuit judgeships in Faulkner County. He spent heavily on legislative races, too, and was tied to a bundle of almost $100,000 pumped into Attorney General Leslie Rutledge’s campaign. He spent some $250,000 altogether in 2014, at our last check and that was hampered by a mix of paper and electronic filings.
It’s early yet and there are many judicial races on the ballot this year, including one for Arkansas Supreme Court. One rumor puts Rutledge in the Supreme Court race with Judge Chip Welch. If past is prologue, there’s a deep pocket she could tap should she make a late entry.