Here’s one of the final chapters of a nursing home negligence lawsuit that led to a political scandal and a couple of federal indictments.
Circuit Judge Dick Moore signed a Perry County probate court order today approving the distribution of funds received from the settlement of a lawsuit against nursing home magnate Michael Morton and former Republican Party chair and Sen. Gilbert Baker for allegedly interfering in a nursing home negligence case over the death of Martha Bull, a Perryville resident.
The judge reviewed the confidential settlement in private and its terms were not on the record in either the motion for approval of the settlement or his order to disburse the proceeds.
Bull, 76, died one month after entering the Greenbrier Nursing and Rehabilitation Center in Faulkner County in 2008. She had severe abdominal pain and a doctor ordered her admission to a hospital, but the order was overlooked despite her agonized cries for help and she died that night,
A lawsuit was filed in Faulkner County by her daughters, Rose Perkins and Rhonda Coppak, and it led to a $5.2 million jury verdict in the court of Circuit Judge Mike Maggio in 2013. Maggio subsequently reduced the verdict to $1 million. And then stuff started hitting the fan. Maggio, then running for Arkansas Court of Appeals, said the verdict shocked the conscience. Our report on the decision, the first on it, indicated our shock at his decision.
It soon developed that Morton had contributed heavily to Maggio’s campaign at that time, through multiple PACs orchestrated by Baker. He also gave $100,000 to UCA, which then employed Baker as a lobbyist.
Thomas Buchanan, attorney for the Bull estate, sued Maggio, Morton and Baker in 2014 alleging that the campaign contributions influenced Maggio’s reduction of the verdict. Separately, a federal criminal investigation began. Maggio pleaded guilty to reducing the verdict in return for the campaign contributions and is serving a 10-year term. Baker has been indicted and is awaiting trial. Morton was not charged and has insisted he made legal campaign contributions to Maggio (and many other judicial candidates).
The 2014 lawsuit was settled earlier this week. Maggio is no longer a defendant. Morton, as owner of many nursing homes, is the likely source of any money paid to settle the case. Baker, when he appeared in court last year, was said to be making $53,000 as a music faculty member at UCA. He’s being represented by a court-paid attorney.
The petition in probate court said the Bull estate had been represented by three law firms — the Buchannan law firm, the Brannon Sloan law firm and the firm of Dodds, Kidd, Ryan and Rowan — working on a contingency fee basis. They were to be paid all recovered money and costs because of what they said was the complexity and upfront costs of the litigation.
Their filing said the confidential settlement terms included a “certain sum of money.” The petitioners asked the probate judge to distribute that money — since no claims are pending against the estate — in equal shares after payment of attorney fees and costs to seven heirs, including Coppak and Perkins. The judge reviewed the settlement amount, attorney fees and expenses in camera. This request was filed in Perry County Sept. 17.
Today, Judge Moore signed an order approving the request. It said the contingency fee was “reasonable” and ordered the remainder distributed to seven heirs, except for one portion held in trust for the estate of an heir that is still in probate.
When Buchanan confirmed a settlement had been reached earlier this week, he said he could say no more.
Baker’s trial is set Feb. 22. It’s never been clear if the federal investigation into the matter is otherwise closed but Maggio is believed to have been cooperating. The investigation verged into Baker’s activities as a fund-raiser for several judicial candidates helped by Morton, including Supreme Court Justice Rhonda Wood. My effort to pin down some federal information gathering ran into a Supreme Court stonewall last year.