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FREE AGAIN: Mike Maggio, shown here in a 2016 file photo after his initial sentencing, has been released from federal prison. Brian Chilson

Former Faulkner County Circuit Judge Mike Maggio has been released from federal prison after serving less than half of a 10-year sentence for bribery.

The development is the latest in a long-running and complex criminal case that dates back to 2014 and that has entangled a once-powerful Republican lobbyist, a wealthy nursing home owner, an Arkansas Supreme Court justice and others. Maggio was accused of reducing the amount of money a jury awarded in a 2013 civil case he presided over as a judge and expecting campaign donations in return.

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Maggio, 60, was freed Wednesday, according to the U.S. Bureau of Prisons’ website. Since he was first incarcerated on July 19, 2017, he has been held in facilities in Kentucky, Atlanta and other undisclosed places.

Maggio, who lived in Faulkner County before his imprisonment, could not be reached for comment Friday. Conway attorney James Hensley, who represented Maggio at one point, said Friday that he was not involved in this phase of the case.

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When federal prosecutors first threatened Maggio with criminal charges, he was soon ready to cooperate. Under an agreement filed in U.S. District Court in Little Rock in January 2015, the U.S. attorney’s office said that if Maggio provided “substantial assistance” in prosecuting criminal conduct, including testimony before a grand jury or trial jury, the prosecution could recommend a sentence reduction to the court.

Then the case took an unusual turn: In February 2016, Maggio attempted to withdraw his guilty plea, saying he had received bad advice from his attorneys. U.S. District Judge Brian Miller denied the motion. The following month, Miller departed from federal sentencing guidelines to give Maggio the maximum possible prison sentence, 10 years.

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“I put drug dealers in prison for five, ten, twenty years for standing on a corner selling crack cocaine,” Miller said at the time. “What’s worse: A drug dealer on the corner or a dirty judge? A dirty judge is far more harmful to society than a dope dealer.” (Miller declined to levy a fine against Maggio, however, saying it was unlikely Maggio could pay it)

Maggio’s subsequent attempts at appeal were unsuccessful. But this summer, after several years in prison, he got a second chance to prove his willingness to cooperate with prosecutors when his alleged co-conspirator went to trial.

Gilbert Baker, a former state senator from Conway and former chairman of the Arkansas Republican Party, was accused of arranging a bribe to Maggio in 2013. In August, a federal jury found Baker innocent of one count of conspiracy but could not reach a verdict on charges of bribery and wire fraud, resulting in a mistrial. That verdict came after days of deliberations and weeks of testimony by a wide range of high-profile witnesses, including Maggio. The former judge, who arrived at the courtroom in shackles, told jurors in the Baker trial that he had indeed accepted a bribe in 2013.

Prosecutors have said they plan to retry Baker on the bribery and wire fraud counts. That trial is to begin May 16. 

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Under Maggio’s plea agreement, he faces two years of supervised release, which could indirectly compel him to testify for a second time against Baker.

John Wesley Hall, a Little Rock defense attorney who once represented Maggio, said Friday that supervised release is the federal prison system’s “de facto parole.” Hall said he no longer represents Maggio; Maggio’s two original attorneys left the case before his sentencing. 

At the time of Maggio’s sentencing, Judge Miller said he was not placing any conditions on Maggio’s supervised release other than to require him to check in with federal probation authorities so “they can help him get re-acclimated.”

Even so, there remains some pressure for Maggio to testify against Baker again in May if the prosecution subpoenas the former judge. Violating a court order could lead to problems with his supervised release, Hall said. Should Maggio become “unavailable” to testify again, though, Hall said prosecutors could use Maggio’s prior testimony in the May trial.

The charges against both Maggio and Baker center on a negligence lawsuit that was filed against a Greenbrier nursing home over the 2008 death of resident Martha Bull, 76, of Perryville. Bull had entered Greenbrier Nursing and Rehabilitation Center for what she thought would be a 30-day rehabilitation after she suffered a mild stroke and an abdominal illness, but she died less than two weeks later. Despite screams of pain, staff at the facility did not take her to a hospital.

Bull’s family sued the nursing home, owned by Michael Morton of Fort Smith, an influential campaign financier. Maggio presided over the case. On May 16, 2013, a Faulkner County jury returned a $5.2 million judgment for Bull’s family.

On July 8, 2013, Maggio held a hearing on the nursing home’s motion for a new trial or a reduced judgment. That same day, Morton’s office made out checks totaling $228,000, with $30,000 of that sum going to political action committees, or PACs, controlled by Gilbert Baker. Morton has said he intended those PACs to give the money to Maggio’s 2014 campaign for the Arkansas Court of Appeals.

On July 9, 2013, a FedEx package containing the checks arrived at Baker’s home.  On July 10, 2013, Maggio reduced the judgment in the lawsuit against Morton’s nursing home from $5.2 million to $1 million. At Baker’s trial, Maggio testified that he lowered the judgment both because he thought it was legally the right thing to do and because he was bribed.

Morton has not been charged with a crime and has repeatedly denied wrongdoing. His attorney, John Everett, said Friday that he had not known of Maggio’s release.

Maggio was accused of accepting a bribe in 2013, and Baker was accused of facilitating that bribe. But it appears no one was charged for paying the alleged bribe — and it seems unlikely anyone ever will be.

Allison Bragg, spokesman for the U.S. attorney’s office, said recently that most federal crimes have a five-year statute of limitations, with some exceptions. Bragg did not comment on whether the statute of limitations has expired for any potential charges against Morton specifically. 

Hall said that, generally, “It’s five years from the last overt act of conspiracy” for any basic federal crime.

The actions “we do know about” in this case are past that five-year limit, he added. “But is there an overt act we don’t know about?”

“[Prosecutors] might have some tenuous evidence showing a connection between Baker and Morton, but they don’t have enough to indict Morton. … That’s an assumption I would be willing to make,” Hall said. “But in their heart of hearts, they don’t believe they can get a conviction.”

Hall said he hasn’t handled enough bribery cases to say how unusual it is that the bribery recipient (Maggio) and the purported middleman (Baker) were indicted but not anyone who paid the bribe.

This reporting is courtesy of the Arkansas Nonprofit News Network, an independent, nonpartisan news project dedicated to producing journalism that matters to Arkansans.