Federal Judge Price Marshall, presiding over the bribery trial of former Republican chair and senator Gilbert Baker, announced this morning that Assistant U.S. Patrick Harris, one of the main government lawyers in the case, had become ill last night and developed a fever.

He’s being tested for COVID-19, with results expected later today. UPDATE: The judge informed the jury that the test was negative, but he said the rapid test sometimes returns false negatives and caution is still advised.

Advertisement

John Ray White was tapped to fill in for Harris, but the judge said because he’s not up to speed on the case the trial will recess Friday to give White more time to prepare. It’s unclear when Harris might be able to return. Assistant U.S. Attorney Julie Peters was leading questioning this morning as key witness Mike Maggio completed his testimony.

Maggio is serving a 10-year federal prison term after pleading guilty to taking campaign contributions from nursing home owner Michael Morton arranged by Baker in return for the then-judge knocking $4.2 million off a $5.2 million jury verdict against a Morton-owned nursing home in the death of an elderly resident after the home failed to get medical treatment for her. Morton has not been charged.

Advertisement

On re-direct questioning, Maggio was asked about a text in which Baker said Morton was backing him “win, lose or draw.” He said he took that to mean Morton was watching the case and that Morton “was involved” — presumably a reference to what Maggio views as Baker’s effort to get him to reduce the verdict in return for the money.

At the end of his testimony, Maggio removed a mask he’s been wearing. A juror had asked the judge to permit that to see his face. After taking off the mask, he said jokingly, “Have you had enough of me yet?”

Advertisement

Maggio was followed to the witness stand by Chris Stewart, the Little Rock lawyer who set up multiple PACs at Baker’s direction to funnel campaign cash to candidates, primarily Maggio, who was tabbed in a list Baker sent to Morton to get $30,000. In the same packet of checks, Morton also provided almost $50,000 in checks written directly to Supreme Court Justice Rhonda Wood’s campaign as Baker had asked, though the campaign was not then legally able to accept money. Baker altered the dates before they were deposited later. I said incorrectly originally that Wood’s money flowed through the PACs, too, rather than being direct contributions from Morton, her biggest single donor. She has continued to hear cases involving Morton’s nursing home empire.

In Stewart’s testimony, he said he met with Baker and then fired him as a client after people listed as officers on the PACs he created began calling him to say they knew nothing about the PACs. He said he realized there were “major issues” and that Baker was “not being honest.” Then, when news developed about the handling of the Faulkner County nursing home case, he said he gathered all his materials relevant to the PACs and took it to the FBI. He was given immunity at the outset of his contact, he said.