Debra Hale-Shelton will be writing a fuller account later of events today in the bribery trial of former Republican Party chair and senator Gilbert Baker, but she provided a summary of afternoon events that adds more to the morning account of special interest influence at the Arkansas legislature.
It came from Tom Courtway, former president of the University of Central Arkansas, in a rambling, almost story-telling account of his hiring of Baker as a lobbyist for UCA and his ultimate firing. What Courtway related was told outside the hearing of the jury as Judge Price Marshall decided whether the Courtway testimony the government wanted to present was admissible. The judge decided that it was admissible, though he admonished the government to adduce testimony in a Q&A form, not allow Courtway to present it as a narrative. The defense objected that most of what Courtway had to say goes to a negative depiction of Baker’s character, not the elements of the alleged crime. The prosecution contended that Baker’s apparent lies to Courtway demonstrated a motive for bribing Judge Mike Maggio to reduce a verdict against a nursing home owned by Michael Morton.
Baker, the prosecution contends, was afraid he’d lose the support Morton had provided his tort reform lobbying efforts and other activities if the $5.2 million verdict stood. The prosecution didn’t say so, but viewing it from outside, it seems to me this theory can provide an explanation for jurors, if they wonder, why Morton wasn’t charged though he was the source of the money used to bribe Maggio, as alleged in the charge against Baker. Maggio has pleaded guilty and is serving a 10-year sentence for reducing the verdict to $1 million in return for bribes in the form of campaign contributions that Baker arranged from Morton. So Baker could be guilty even if Morton is not.
Courtway brought in more legislative players in the scandal — the late former Sen. Stanley Russ of Conway and Michael Lamoureux, president pro tem of the Senate at the time events took place, and later chief of staff to Governor Hutchinson. He’s now a lobbyist. He was also a recipient of tort reform lobby cash, as were Baker and former Republican legislator/lobbyist Marvin Parks, who testified this morning that illegal straw contributions were regular occurrences in Arkansas.
Baker, a music faculty member at UCA, was hired by Courtway in early 2012 as executive assistant, to lobby for UCA at the legislature
Shortly after, Coutway got a complaint from a legislator that Baker was lobbying on tort reform as well as UCA.
Subsequent reporting showed he was paid for that tort reform work and also raised money while working for UCA for legislative candidates such as Stacy Hurst, now a state agency head and a potential witness in this case.
Courtway said Baker denied doing such lobbying. But then Courtway got another similar complaint. And then news started breaking in 2014 about problematic contributions to Mike Maggio. Courtway said he asked Baker if he’d talked to Maggio about the nursing home case in Faulkner County that led to the $5.2 million jury verdict reduced to $1 million by Maggio. Baker said he had not, though he did, as evidence now shows.
Baker also denied having anything to do with the PACs used to funnel money to Maggio. That’s untrue, as reporting at the time soon revealed.
The development about the PACs made Courtway decide to fire Baker. He said Baker argued strenuously against it. Then Russ stepped in with a phone call to Courtway in support of Baker. Lamoureux made a personal visit to Courtway to dissuade him from firing Baker, saying he was so well respected among legislators.
Courtway said he decided not to fire Baker. Then a week later, news emerged of a friend of Baker, Don Thomas, saying he knew nothing about the PAC that listed him as an officer. Courtway asked him to resign again, though his tenure as a faculty member allowed I’m to continue on the UCA payroll. UCA returned the $100,000 contribution Morton had sent through Baker.
Courtway explained UCA had been through two failed presidencies and years of controversy over various issues. “We didn’t need any more.”
The jury will hear elements of this when Courtway takes the stand tomorrow. The judge made no comment that any specifics of the story were off-limits.