After two days of recess on account of the COVID-19 infection of one of the prosecutors, the trial of former Republican Party chair and senator Gilbert Baker on bribery charges resumed in federal court this morning, highlighted by a prosecution witness who testified that illegal straw campaign contributions are regular occurrences in Arkansas.
Federal Judge Price Marshall also denied a defense motion for a mistrial on account of the COVID disruptions and other legal issues. Baker’s attorney again asked for a bench rather than a jury trial, a request refused early in the case. U.S. Attorney Patrick Harris tested positive for COVID and the judge delayed the trial for two days to give time for a substitute to prepare and to test all participants, including the jury. He polled the jury today and all said they were comfortable proceeding with the trial.
Baker is accused of getting more than $200,000 from nursing home magnate Michael Morton, primarily to put into judicial races, including those by Supreme Court Justice Rhonda Wood and then-Circuit Judge Mike Maggio, who planned to run for Court of Appeals.
Maggio has pleaded guilty to accepting almost $30,000 funneled to him through PACs set up by Baker with the understanding it was tied to his reduction of a jury’s negligence finding against a Morton nursing home. He reduced a $5.2 million verdict to $1 million. Morton and Baker contend their contributions were legal campaign activities. Morton has not been charged.
A prosecution witness today was lobbyist Marvin Parks, a lobbyist and former Republican legislator. He leads a tort reform lobby group, then known as Arkansans for Lawsuit Reform, that got some of the money Baker arranged to get from Morton. Parks got $8,500 and then took $6,000 to give to Maggio in contributions from himself, his wife and his business.
Assistant U.S. Attorney Julie Peters asked Parks if he knew straw donations — money from one source sent to a campaign through another person — were illegal. He said he did.
Did he know his own actions were illegal in this case. “Certainly it wasn’t one of my better decisions,” he responded. He said later that he knew it was “unethical.”
Baker’s defense attorney on cross-examination asked Parks if straw donations were uncommon. “No they’re not,” he responded. “It’s what happens. It was not a singular event.”
The soft and dirty underbelly of Arkansas politics was thus on graphic display under oath. And Baker’s defense, from the line of questioning, seems to be, “Hey, everybody does it.”
Parks was followed by another lobbyist witness, Bruce Hawkins of Morrilton, who also received money passed through Parks’ lobbying group that then was sent through a PAC to Maggio. His answers weren’t as direct as Parks’, my report from Debra Hale-Shelton indicates. He apparently indicated at one point that Maggio wasn’t in a position important to Hawkins, whose primary political interest then was protecting so-called county line liquor stores from expansion in dry counties.
The testimony might give one cause to wonder about the effectiveness of the state Ethics Commission.
UPDATE: Nursing home owner Bryan Adams of Conway said Baker had also solicited him for contributions to judicial candidates. But he said he refused Baker’s request to post-date the checks, a contradiction to Baker’s claims that he never solicited judicial campaign contributions before the legal start date. Testimony in the trial has already indicated Morton’s checks directly to Rhonda Wood’s campaign were written ahead of the legal beginning for campaign contributions. The dates on the check were altered before they were deposited in Wood’s campaign account. She claims she knew nothing about the early arrival of the money, though she and Baker exchanged phone messages the day Baker got a FedEx delivery with Morton’s contributions requested by Baker.
A COVID sidelight: They have increased the air conditioner operation in the federal courthouse to enhance ventilation. As a result, some jurors have picked up blankets to stay warm.