Federal prosecutors have agreed not to charge certain witnesses who testify against former lobbyist Gilbert Baker in his bribery and wire fraud trial starting next month, a federal judge has disclosed.
U.S. District Judge D. Price Marshall Jr. did not reveal the identity of those witnesses. His comments appeared in a lengthy working draft of jury instructions filed in preparation for Baker’s trial, scheduled to begin July 26 in Little Rock. In April, Marshall rejected a defense motion to dismiss the indictment against Baker.
A former state senator from Conway and former chairman of the Arkansas Republican Party, Baker, 64, is charged with bribery, wire fraud and conspiracy in an alleged plot to benefit himself, former Faulkner County Circuit Judge Mike Maggio and Michael Morton, a nursing home owner and campaign financier.
Judges read jury members their instructions after testimony concludes but before deliberations begin.
The draft, which Marshall could still revise, says in part, “You have heard evidence that the United States promised some other witnesses that they wouldn’t be prosecuted in a criminal case.”
“Their testimony is evidence, and you may consider it,” the draft continues. “Give it the weight you think it deserves. You get to decide whether the United States’ promise may have influenced these witnesses’ testimony.”
Assistant U.S. Attorney Patrick Harris declined to comment Monday on the identities of those witnesses.
Morton, of Fort Smith, said he had “no idea” if he would be called as a witness.
“I’ve never talked to them [federal prosecutors] about the Baker trial,” he told a reporter on Monday when reached by phone. “If I had, they probably wouldn’t want me talking to you.”
Neither the prosecution nor the defense had filed a witness list as of Tuesday, though the January 2019 indictment against Baker gives clues to the identities of some likely witnesses. They range from Morton to Chris Stewart, a Little Rock attorney hired by Baker to create political action committees, or PACs, which can accept campaign contributions and distribute them to candidates. Others could include lobbyist Marvin Parks, a former treasurer of a group called Arkansans for Lawsuit Reform; lobbyist Bruce Hawkins; Arkansas Supreme Court Justice Rhonda Wood; and Clint Reed, a former executive director of the Arkansas Republican Party. Prosecutors have not accused any of these people of a crime.
Baker’s indictment, filed in January 2019, accuses him of being the middleman in a plot to bribe Maggio, who had presided over a negligence lawsuit against Greenbrier Nursing and Rehabilitation Center, a nursing home owned by Morton. Resident Martha Bull of Perryville died there at age 76 in April 2008, less than two weeks after entering the facility. Despite screams of pain, she was never taken to a hospital.
A Faulkner County jury awarded a $5.2 million judgment against the nursing home in 2013, but Maggio reduced that amount to $1 million shortly after receiving campaign contributions from Morton-financed PACs that Baker had hired Stewart to form.
Maggio, 59, is scheduled for release Jan. 23, 2026, according to the U.S. Bureau of Prisons’ website. The website indicated Tuesday that he was not in the bureau’s custody, which sometimes means a prisoner is being held elsewhere while he cooperates with authorities.
Maggio reached his own agreement with prosecutors in January 2015 when he pleaded guilty to one count of federal bribery. 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. He began serving a 10-year prison sentence in July 2017.
Judge Marshall noted that Maggio’s agreement provides that the prosecutor in his case can file a motion to reduce his sentence if the prosecutor believes Maggio “provided substantial assistance.”
“If the United States attorney does file a motion to reduce a sentence, then it is up to the judge in that case to decide whether to reduce the sentence at all and, if so, how much to reduce it,” Marshall added.
Morton has repeatedly denied wrongdoing and has not been charged with a crime.
“I haven’t done anything wrong. I’ve never bribed a judge,” he said Monday.
In October 2020, attorneys settled a lawsuit by two of Bull’s daughters against Baker and Morton. Parties on both sides of the dispute have declined to release details of the settlement agreement. Any monetary payment likely would affect Morton, a prominent businessman, more than Baker, a retired music professor.
Morton, asked if he could discuss details of the agreement, said, “I could, but I’m not.”
Attorney Thomas Buchanan, who represented Bull’s daughters, also declined to release details. “All I can say is that the parties resolved their differences,” he said.
The Baker indictment alleges that he caused $12,950 in political action committee checks to be donated between roughly November 2013 and February 2014 to Maggio’s campaign for the Arkansas Court of Appeals, which was later halted. It also accuses Baker of causing $18,000 in “straw donations” to be contributed to Maggio’s campaign. These donations were allegedly funded by “bonuses” from Arkansans for Lawsuit Reform. Straw donations refer to contributions made in one person’s name when the money is coming from someone else.
Morton has previously said he had intended for his PAC donations to go to Maggio’s campaign. Morton’s 10 $3,000 checks were made out to 10 PACs controlled by Baker on July 8, 2013, the day his lawyers asked Maggio to reverse or reduce the jury’s award to Bull’s family. Morton has said he intended for the money to go to Maggio’s campaign, as some but not all did. Morton has called the timing “coincidental.”
On July 9, 2013, a package containing $228,000 arrived at Baker’s home. The next day, Maggio slashed the jury’s judgment to $1 million.
Baker’s attorney, Blake Hendrix, did not return a phone call or email message seeking comment. Jury selection in the trial begins July 23.
This reporting is courtesy of the Arkansas Nonprofit News Network, an independent, nonpartisan news project dedicated to producing journalism that matters to Arkansans.