Federal Judge Price Marshall this week refused to dismiss bribery charges against former Republican senator and GOP Party chair Gilbert Baker related to his funneling of campaign contributions to a then-circuit judge, Mike Maggio of Conway.
Maggio, 59, is serving a federal sentence for pleading guilty to accepting money arranged by Baker for contributions to Maggio’s campaign for the Court of Appeals in return for reducing a $5.2 million jury verdict against a nursing home owned by Michael Morton of Fort Smith to $1 million. Morton provided the money for contributions to Maggio (and many other judicial candidates) but hasn’t been charged with a crime. He’s defended the contributions as legal.
Thanks to Debra Hale-Shelton, the veteran reporter from Conway, for alerting me to the court filing. She has written a story on the case for the Arkansas Nonprofit News Network.
It includes a quote from Baker’s attorney that indicates he will not strike a plea deal.
Maggio, 59, serving a sentence in federal prison through 2026, lost his circuit judgeship over an inquiry into comments he’d made on an Internet message board. They included racist and sexist remarks and he also revealed confidential information about a celebrity’s adoption of a child in Faulkner County.
That episode led to inquiries into campaign giving, led by discoveries by Blue Hog Report, and his ultimate prosecution.
Baker, 64, was charged with nine counts of bribery and wire service fraud in 2019. He’s alleged to have arranged contributions to Maggio’s campaign in 2013 and 2014. (Maggio dropped out of the race.) Baker asked that the charges be dismissed because of an overlong delay in his indictment.
The motion to dismiss recounts Baker’s theory:
Central to the government’s theory of prosecution are communications between 1) Baker and Morton and 2) Baker and Maggio. The indictment alleges that on May 16, 2013, a half hour after the jury’s verdict in the civil case, Maggio and Baker engaged in three text communications and Morton called Baker. On May 17, 2013, the day after the verdict, Morton and Baker exchanged phone calls. On June 17, 2013, sometime after Baker and Morton met to discuss contributions to various candidates and causes, Morton tried to call Baker twice and Baker and Maggio engaged in eight text communications. On July 8, 2013, two days before Maggio reduced the jury award, Baker and Maggio engaged in four text communications. On July 9, 2013, the day before the remittitur, Baker and Maggio spoke on the phone, Baker and Morton spoke on the phone, and Baker and “Individual E” (a candidate for the Arkansas Supreme Court [Supreme Court Justice Rhonda Wood]) texted twice.
The indictment implies that the communications are evidence of Baker, Morton, and Maggio conspiring to reduce the jury award in exchange for contributions to Maggio’s Court of Appeals campaign. The indictment, however, does not set out the content of the text messages. Had the government acted timely, the content of the text messages could have been retrieved. If they had been retrieved, they would have showed that Baker, Morton, and Maggio never discussed Maggio reducing the jury award in exchange for campaign contributions. The government, however, waited four years and eight months from the last act alleged (just a few months before the statute of limitations expired) before bringing the indictment against Baker. Because of this delay, Baker has been denied access to the exculpatory text messages.
In denying the request, Judge Marshall said the messages wouldn’t have been available in 2015 had the indictment come earlier because Baker had control of his phone and had deleted the messages. Baker also argued he had no authority over the expenditure of state judicial funds and couldn’t be viewed as an agent for Maggio’s corrupt actions. Marshall said the statute didn’t require that to prove a nexus between Maggio and Baker. Baker also argued the government hadn’t alleged a quid pro quo, but Marshall said there was sufficient evidence to make the allegation, including the batch of coordinated campaign contributions and Baker’s text to Maggio that campaign money would be forthcoming to Maggio “win, lose or draw.”
Finally, Baker argued he couldn’t be charged with bribery because the money given to Maggio was at most a “gratuity,” given after he’d reduced the nursing home verdict. The judge said:
This argument fails for two reasons. First, the Indictment alleges that Baker received the checks before Maggio ruled and then concealed the money in the PAC accounts until Maggio’s campaign could receive it. Second, as the United States argues, it’s the timing of the agreement-not the timing of the payment-that differentiates a bribe from a gratuity.
The judge also granted motions by the prosecutors to block cross-examination of Maggio on the Internet comments that cost him his job in an ethics proceeding. They are not relevant to the bribery case, the government had argued.
The judge also granted the prosecution’s motion to prevent Baker’s attorney from introducing lie detector test results, which are generally disfavored for use in federal courts in this judicial circuit.
Baker’s trial is set for July 26.