Bribery case against former state senator Gilbert Baker appears headed for trial

Former state senator Gilbert Baker (left) and former circuit judge Mike Maggio. (Credit: Brian Chilson)

A federal court has ended any chance that a former chairman of the Republican Party of Arkansas can avoid a bribery trial, unless he reaches a plea agreement first. Chief Judge D. Price Marshall Jr., in a ruling Tuesday in U.S. District Court, rejected a defense motion to dismiss the January 2019 indictment against Gilbert Baker, a former state senator and lobbyist from Conway.

Baker, 64, awaits a trial set to begin July 26 on charges of bribery, wire fraud and conspiracy over allegations involving a plot to benefit himself, a now-former Faulkner County circuit judge, and a nursing home owner and campaign financier.

The indictment accuses Baker of being the middleman in a plot to bribe the former circuit judge, Mike Maggio, who presided over a negligence lawsuit against a Greenbrier nursing home. The suit was brought by the family of nursing home resident Martha Bull of Perryville, who died at the facility in April 2008 at age 76.

Bull had entered the home March 28, 2008, for what she thought would be a 30-day rehabilitation after she suffered a mild stroke and an abdominal illness. Her condition had worsened by April 6, and she died the next day. Despite screams of pain, staff at the facility did not take her to a hospital but gave her a suppository, a Tylenol, an antacid and even an antidepressant.

A Faulkner County jury awarded a $5.2 million judgement in the Bull family’s lawsuit against Greenbrier Nursing and Rehabilitation Center, owned by Fort Smith businessman Michael Morton. Maggio then reduced the sum to $1 million.

Maggio has changed his story more than once. He pleaded guilty in January 2015 to taking a bribe to lower the amount of the judgment. Though he later attempted to walk back his guilty plea, a federal judge refused to allow him to do so, and his attempts at appeal were unsuccessful. Maggio began serving a 10-year prison sentence in July 2017.

Morton, who has denied wrongdoing, has not been charged with a crime. 

In December, Marshall ordered the U.S. attorney’s office and Baker to file a report by May 13 on whether the case is ready for trial or a plea agreement.

Assistant U.S. Attorney Patrick Harris declined comment Wednesday, and Baker did not reply to messages seeking comment. Asked if Baker plans to enter plea negotiations with the U.S. attorney’s office, Baker’s lead attorney, Blake Hendrix, said in an email Thursday, “Nothing has changed since the ruling. We will go to trial.”

Marshall also granted two unchallenged motions from federal prosecutors, including one that disclosed the government intends to call Maggio as a witness at Baker’s trial.

Marshall agreed to bar the defense from asking Maggio during cross-examination about what the prosecution called “highly inappropriate statements related to race, gender, and sexuality” that Maggio made in online comments unrelated to the indictment’s allegations. Those statements were one of the reasons the Arkansas Supreme Court ordered Maggio’s removal from the bench in September 2014.

Maggio, who had posted the comments anonymously on a website for Louisiana State University fans, wrote about a range of subjects, including divorce, bestiality, homosexuality and a confidential Arkansas adoption case involving actress Charlize Theron.

“Given the highly inflammatory nature of the comments made by Maggio in the online forum, the danger of prejudice would substantially outweigh any probative value to the defense should cross-examination regarding these issues be allowed,” the prosecution successfully argued.

In seeking the indictment’s dismissal, Baker attorneys argued that if the government had not waited until 2019 to charge him, he would still have had access to text messages that would have helped his defense but no longer are available.

Marshall’s order, however, says federal prosecutors said they had tried to retrieve those messages in the fall of 2014 but found they’d already been deleted from Baker’s phone.

“Baker may be prejudiced by the unavailability of the text messages,” Marshall added. ”But even if the United States had indicted him in 2015 instead of 2019, those messages would still be unavailable. Baker is the one who had control of his phone when the messages were deleted. Any prejudice is not the result of the Indictment’s timing.”

Marshall also rejected Baker’s arguments that neither the bribery charge nor the fraud count adequately allege a quid pro quo and referred to a timeline provided in the indictment.

The timeline says that on May 16, 2013, the jury returned a $5.2 million judgment against the nursing home over Bull’s death. On June 17, 2013, the nursing home filed a motion seeking either a new trial or a reduced judgment. On June 29, 2013, Baker told Maggio “‘your first 50K is on the way,’” a statement the government says “Maggio understood to include support from Individual A,” a reference to Morton.

In late June or early July 2013, the timeline says, “Baker communicates to Maggio that ‘win, lose, or draw,’ Individual A would support Maggio,” who was planning a campaign for a seat on the Arkansas Court of Appeals.

In early July 2013, the timeline says, “Baker tells Maggio that Individual A is watching the civil lawsuit and would appreciate a favorable decision.”

Also in early July 2013, the timeline indicates, Baker faxed Morton requesting campaign contributions to 10 political action committees.

On July 8, 2013, it says, Baker and Maggio communicated by text. Morton wrote ten $3,000 checks, one to each of the PACs, and sent them to Baker’s home. Baker got them the next morning and communicated by phone with Maggio that afternoon, according to the timeline. On July 10, 2013, Maggio signed an order cutting the $5.2 million judgment to $1 million. 

Marshall noted that Baker “emphasizes the ‘win, lose, or draw’ statement; but how to interpret those words in context is for the jury.”

Morton has said the donations’ timing was coincidental. Maggio’s aborted campaign for the state appeals court later got some but not all of the PAC money, even though Morton has said he intended it for Maggio's campaign.

Marshall also granted a prosecution request barring the defense from introducing results of a lie detector test that Baker has apparently taken. The prosecution said it did not know the examiner, the results or the questions asked.

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

The Arkansas Nonprofit News Network is an independent, nonpartisan news organization dedicated to producing journalism that matters to Arkansans. Our work is re-published by partner newsrooms across the state.