Juge Price Marshall responded in part last week to the request by Gilbert Baker’s attorneys for expanded questioning of prospective jurors in his federal bribery trial set to begin July 26 and also for proposed jury instructions.
He’ll discuss the request on jury questions further at a hearing Thursday, he said in an order filed last week. But he expressed some reluctance on the nature of instructions given to the jury in deciding guilt or innocence.
Baker’s attorneys had asked for a lengthy expansion of the questionnaire given to prospective jurors. They included questions about political leanings and media sources of information, campaign contributions, nursing homes, tort reform and other topics with at least a tangential connection to Baker, a former Republican Party leader and senator who’s accused of bribing a then-judge with campaign contributions from a nursing home owner to induce the judge to reduce a negligence lawsuit verdict against the nursing home owner from $5.2 million to $1 million.
The former judge, Mike Maggio, has gone to prison after pleading guilty. The nursing home owner, Michael Morton, hasn’t been charged. Baker is charged with nine counts in a conspiracy to bribe Maggio. He’s charged as the middleman on contributions to PACs that were to give money to Maggio’s campaign for Arkansas Court of Appeals and other judicial candidates.
In addition to delaying a final ruling on the jury questions (the so-called voir dire), Marshall gave lawyers a draft of proposed jury instructions and commented:
For now, the Court has followed its usual drill of including case-specific questions in the draft voir dire. We will discuss Baker’s motion for a supplemental questionnaire, Doc. 74, at the June 17th pretrial.
The Court is not inclined to include the long list of alleged overt acts in the conspiracy elements instruction. It will, however, consider attaching the list to the follow-up instruction that explains those elements. The Court has included a draft list, which is subject to change depending on how the proof comes in.
The Court has omitted Baker’s proposed language about the nature of campaign contributions and their role in the political process. The Court will consider whether that or similar language would be appropriate as a stand-alone theory of the defense instruction.
The instructions include a detailed list of overt acts to support the charges, particularly dates and times of phone and text messages involving Baker, Morton and Maggio as well as others, such as Chris Stewart, a lawyer who helped set up the PACs, lobbyist Bruce Hawkins and Marvin Parks, a lobbyist who used his tort reform lobbying group to send money to Stewart. It also details Baker’s fund-raising for Rhonda Wood, now a member of the Arkansas Supreme Court. He sent $48,000 in 24 checks to PACs to pump into Wood’s campaign, part of $228,000 worth of checks written to various entities outlined in the scheme. She hasn’t been accused of wrongdoing, though the checks to her were written months before the date at which contributions could be made to judicial campaigns. BAker changed the dates on the checks and delivered them at a fund-raiser he arranged for Wood the first day legal contributions could be made.
The facts themselves — if held illegal or not — do not paint a pretty picture, including allegations of dishonest statements by some players to the state Ethics Commission, in addition to the $4.2 million reduction in the jury verdict and Baker’s conversations with others at that time.
In other developments in the case, Baker’s attorney today filed a motion asking the judge to prevent the government from introducing evidence that Maggio and Baker made false statements to the Ethics Commission. Baker contends he told the Ethics investigators the truth, but these events also occurred after the alleged central object of the conspiracy (campaign contributions) had been achieved and events afterward, even if efforts at concealment, were thus inadmissible.