Michael Morton, the nursing home magnate whose political contributions are key to the bribery charge against former Republican chair and former state Sen. Gilbert Baker, began testifying in Baker’s trial in federal district court in Little Rock this morning.
More to come, but the testimony so far, as reported by Debra Hale-Shelton, who’ll be writing later for the Arkansas Nonprofit News Network:
May 16, 2013, when a Faulkner County jury delivered a $5.2 million negligence verdict against a nursing home he owned in Greenbrier, Morton said he called Baker because he’d worked with him in the past on tort reform, or legislation to make it harder to sue nursing homes for damages.
“I called him to explain this is what happens when you don’t have tort reform,” he said he told Baker. He said he was upset and complained about runaway juries. “I was pretty well raging.”
By then, Baker had already inquired about his willingness to support Maggio for a Court of Appeals seat and Court of Appeals Judge Rhonda Wood for an Arkansas Supreme Court seat. Morton had not supported Maggio before but said he would support Wood, as he had previously. He would eventually send almost $50,000 to Wood, $50,000 to a political lobby that supported tort reform, nearly $30,000 to Maggio and an unspecified sum to UCA, where Baker then worked as a lobbyist.
Other testimony dealt with succeeding events: On June 17, Morton’s attorney asked for a reduction in the verdict. June 28, Morton, Baker and others had a meeting at a Russellville restaurant that included discussions about support for judicial candidates. Baker later sent Morton a fax he’d requested outlining the money he was seeking. Morton said the messages with Baker might have also covered a contribution he made to Stacy Hurst, then a Republican candidate for state House. July 8, Morton wrote the checks. Baker received them by FedEx July 9. On July 10, Maggio slashed the verdict against Morton’s nursing home to $1 million.
Morton has not been charged and he’ll be given an opportunity on cross-examination to say there was no quid pro quo intended despite appearances. He faces more questioning from prosecutors today. Maggio, who is serving a 10-year federal prison term after pleading guilty to reducing the verdict in return for the campaign contributions arranged by Baker, also is to testify. He’ll be impeached by the defense for his earlier efforts to withdraw his guilty plea while arguing he’d been pressured to plead guilty by a threat that his wife also could be prosecuted.
Jurors also heard today from an FBI analyst who reconstructed some phone text messages, though he was unable to rebuild messages between Baker and Wood, both of whom say they don’t remember what they said to each other at the critical times during the writing of checks (ahead of the time that judges could raise money for campaigns) and reduction of the jury verdict. The government said Wood was among those Maggio turned to for advice on handling the request for a reduction in the verdict.
A phone company analyst and state ethics official also testified, the latter about law relating to “straw” campaign donations. Morton’s campaign contributions were sent to PACs created by Baker. They then disbursed the money to candidates.
UPDATE: Morton was still on the stand when the trial broke for lunch. In later testimony, he said he’d sent money to Maggio through PACs, rather than directly to a candidate, as he’d done for Wood, because Baker wanted it done that way.
Asked about writing the checks the same day that Maggio was holding a hearing on reducing the verdict against Morton’s nursing home, he responded: “In hindsight, it looks horrible.”
UPDATE: Supreme Court Justice Rhonda Wood began testifying this afternoon. She disputed the defense’s statement that she’d consulted with Maggio on his decision on reducing the verdict. She said repeatedly events were eight years ago and difficult to recall. She got testy when questioned about money sent to her campaign before she was supposed to receive them, in July when they weren’t legally receivable until November. The dates on the checks were changed. She said she didn’t notice that until after she received. She said, in a trembling voice at points, that she resented an implication that she knew they came in early. She acknowledged she knew Baker and Morton and that she’d campaigned together with Maggio. She’ll continue testifying Wednesday morning.