Arkansas Supreme Court Justice Rhonda Wood completed initial testimony this morning in the bribery trial of former Republican Party chair and senator Gilbert Baker, who is accused of funneling money from nursing home owner Michael Morton to then-Circuit Judge Michael Maggio, who reduced a verdict against a Morton nursing home in a negligence death by $4.2 million.

Wood, a government witness, was asked on cross-examination by Assistant U.S. Attorney Pat Harris  defense attorney Blake Hendrix if she knew Maggio had implicated her in the bribery scheme, for which Maggio pleaded guilty and is serving a 10-year sentence. “I did not,” she said. “But it doesn’t surprise me.”


CORRECTION: I originally had the U.S. attorney asking this question of Wood and the original headline reflected that. It was Baker’s defense attorney, Blake Hendrix, a spokesman for Wood said.

Maggio is scheduled to testify today and Judge Price Marshall stopped further questioning of Wood about Maggio’s reported allegation until after Maggio testifies. So she may be recalled.


Morton sent $30,000 to Baker to put into PACs Baker had set up primarily to benefit Maggio’s race for Court of Appeals. He sent checks directly from his various nursing homes to Wood’s campaign for Arkansas Supreme Court. Neither Morton nor Wood has been charged. Wood received almost $50,000 from Morton and has continued to sit on cases involving his nursing homes.

Wood testified yesterday that she had not, as the defense has said, been consulted by Maggio on his decision to reduce the verdict against Morton, who testified he was enraged by the jury verdict. She says she doesn’t remember what she texted Baker about the day he received checks for her and the PACs. The checks were cut the day Maggio reduced the verdict and received by Baker the next day. The texts with Baker were erased from her phone and his phone. They say they can’t remember the content. She also said she was unaware the Morton checks had been written to her before the legal beginning of judicial campaign fund-raising. She said she’d have returned them. Baker altered the dates before they went into her campaign treasury.


Also scheduled to testify today is Chris Stewart, a Little Rock lawyer Baker engaged to set up the PACs to funnel money to Maggio. There’s been testimony about discrepancies in the details of the PACs.

Wood also testified yesterday that while she and Maggio had both been circuit judges in Faulkner County, they were not “personal friends.” Compare that with this feature story about her in the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette in 2012, in which she and Maggio traded friendly remarks about each other. The article, written on her move from circuit court to the Arkansas Court of Appeals, indicates Maggio did look to her for advice.

It’s the social interaction that Wood said she’ll miss the most when she leaves at the end of the year.

“I’m really going to miss my staff. I’ll probably cry that whole last week,” she said.

Judge Mike Maggio jokes that he’s her driver because when they attend civic organization events, he offers to take his vehicle.

“She’s like a rock star, … and they’re like, ‘Who are you?’ I say, ‘Oh, I’m her driver,’” Maggio said.

Wood and Maggio joked back and forth in the hallway outside their offices in the old Presbyterian-church-turned-courtbuilding near downtown Conway.

Her office is full of framed photos of her family; their dog, a Jack Russell terrier named Harley; and even her staff.

She picked up a small trophy sitting among the photos.

It’s the March Madness award in a competition that includes Maggio and both their staffs to pick the most correct games in the NCAA basketball tournament.

Wood is this year’s champion.

“I love beating Judge Maggio every year,” she said, laughing. (She conceded that he did win once.)

She parades the trophy by his office once in a while, just to antagonize him, she said.


Maggio said Wood is “an extremely good egg to put up with me and my joking, my light-heartedness and my practical jokes – and she has given me a few back.”

“In all seriousness, it has been truly my distinct honor and pleasure to serve with her at the trial-court level and have the added bonus of sharing the office-suite complex,” he said.

“Without a doubt, one of the things that has made my job easier is the fact of having her in close proximity to visit with on a daily basis to bounce things off of and keep us both sane.”

Maggio said Wood has a strong work ethic and a desire to do her best, whether it’s in Teen Court, where she volunteers one night a week, daily court, “or even a March Madness bracket.”

He said although he will miss her, “I cannot wait to have her voice, and her vision and her viewpoint on the Court of Appeals, having somebody who has been at the trial-court level and knows what it’s like.”

Wood is a candidate for re-election to the Supreme Court next year. She has no announced opponent.

UPDATE: Maggio took the stand this morning. He entered the courtroom in shackles, while the jury was out, but they were removed. He wore a black T-shirt and trousers and said he didn’t want to remove his black face mask. The proceeding was delayed to obtain a clear face mask so his face could be seen.


He testified that he viewed the campaign contributions as a bribe. He said he lowered the verdict against Morton’s home for two reasons: 1) that the verdict was too high and 2) to get the money.

He also that he had erased text messages with Rhonda Wood and Gilbert Baker at Wood’s suggestion. By the lunch break, he had not been asked about her involvement, mentioned by the government earlier in the morning, and cross-examination had not begun.

He said prosecutors had not threatened to charge his wife, as the defense has suggested, but he said a former defense counsel had said that was a possibility. He also said advice of a former lawyer and his state at the time contributed to his decision to try to withdraw his guilty plea — “like General Flynn,” he said jokingly. But he said he understood that bribery didn’t just mean taking a bag of cash for an official action.

UPDATE: Today’s testimony ended with Maggio still on the stand. Cross-examination focused on his changing stories.