Former Republican Party chair and state senator Gilbert Baker was acquitted by a federal jury yesterday on the main event in a nine-count indictment, conspiracy to bribe Judge Mike Maggio to reduce a huge verdict against a nursing home owned by Michael Morton.
The jury hung on eight counts that look to me like only technical underlying elements of the central crime. They were a conspiracy count tied to bribing someone who worked in an agency that received federal money and seven wire fraud counts, each for a campaign contribution check written to a PAC created by Baker to funnel money to Maggio and a few other beneficiaries.
For now — pending discussions with jurors — the government says it will retry the case. I think it will be difficult. But forget federal criminal statutes.
Testimony in this case, on top of all that had been reported before, convicted the Arkansas political system, through several players, of unethical, dishonest and at times illegal behavior — all apparently without consequence before agencies established to regulate the conduct of lawyers, judges and elected officials.
Maggio is serving 10 years in prison for believing the money Morton directed to him through a multiple-PAC laundry was a bribe to lower the verdict against a Morton nursing home. He did so, saving Morton $4.2 million.
Morton was charged with no crime and that had to be a complicating factor for the jury. He continues to lavish money on the worst members of the Arkansas legislature, all in the name of getting laws passed that make it harder to sue nursing homes.
How filthy is this system? Morton also has been a major financier of a lobbying organization that works for so-called tort reform. Beneficiaries of that outfit have included former Republican lawmaker/lobbyists Michael Lamoureux, Marvin Parks and Gilbert Baker. Lamoureux was actually on the payroll while Senate president pro tem, before he became Asa Hutchinson’s chief of staff. He was in on the meeting with Morton at which Baker discussed which judicial candidates Morton would favor in 2014. There were several, none more important than Maggio, running for Court of Appeals, and Rhonda Wood, running to rise from the Court of Appeals to the Arkansas Supreme Court.
Baker continued his tort reform side hustle even after getting hired as a lobbyist for UCA. Then-President Tom Courtway finally fired Baker after he told multiple lies about his activities.
It remains legal, if sleazy, to create multiple PACs so that a single source, such as Morton, can multiply contributions to a favored political candidate, otherwise limited as a direct contributor. Corporation may contribute to these PACs, a giant loophole in an ethics amendment that DID outlaw corporate contributions to individual campaigns. That little loophole had allowed Morton to send $48,000 to Rhonda Wood in 2013 in the form of checks from each of his nursing homes. She recused from a Morton case in 2015, the year she took office. Come 2017, she said she saw no reason to continue to get off a Morton nursing home case. This, despite his primacy as a campaign giver and her connection to the Gilbert Baker scandal, subject of many news reports. She ultimately was included as an unnamed participant in events detailed in the Baker indictment. CORRECTION: Wood began recusing from Morton cases in 2019 after the Baker indictment and the potential arose that she’d be called as a witness. I don’t have an answer yet on what her posture might be on Morton cases when the Baker case is concluded.
It was a rough trial for Wood, who is seeking re-election next year. She claimed not to remember the content of texts she exchanged at crucial times with Baker and Maggio. If they weren’t incriminating, why did she and her dear friend Baker take pains to erase them? She also testified that she was not a personal friend of Maggio, in contrast to the buddy-buddy relationship she and Maggio described in a newspaper article back when they were attending political events together.
Testimony showed that Baker solicited money for Wood before the legal start date to raise money for judicial campaigns. Her texts with Baker included the time period when Baker received the money. She claimed to know nothing about this or the alteration of the dates on checks deposited to her campaign when the legal date arrived. If she had shame, the tar she’s brought to the state’s highest court, would lead to a quiet retirement. But shame is no impediment to Republican politicians. (Yes, Wood runs as a non-partisan, but she’s identified herself repeatedly as a Republican by association with GOP politicians and events.)
Maybe Wood had knowledge of illegal fund-raising in her behalf and maybe she didn’t. But lobbyist Marvin Parks and lobbyist Bruce Hawkins testified under oath quite clearly about illegal “straw” contributions. They received payments from Baker, arising from Morton money laundered through the tort reform lobby group, that they in turn sent to the Baker-created PACs. It happens all the time in Arkansas, Parks testified.
Does the state Ethics Commission care? If it cared too much, the Republican legislature would stomp on its budget.
The money from the nursing home lobby continues to flow unabated. To the governor. To many legislators. To judicial candidates. To lobbyists. It pays: $250 million in federal aid from the governor here, helpful legislation there. Lately, it also likely contributes to an absence of calls for nursing homes to do a better job getting staffs vaccinated.
Baker trial verdict: Money talks. And if you’re not too stupid (see Maggio) you might even get away with it.
Verdict on honesty and ethics in Arkansas politics: Unanimous. They are in short supply.
PS: And how to explain former US Attorney Cody Hiland turning up as a defense witness? (I should have written originally that he was subpoenaed and had no choice. The defense used him to impeach Maggio’s credibility, which was fair enough. If he’d been asked, perhaps he would have said Gilbert Baker was a dirtbag too.)