State supreme court justice and former U.S. attorney on witness list as jury selection begins in bribery trial

Associate Supreme Court Justice Rhonda Wood

An Arkansas Supreme Court justice and a former U.S. attorney are among potential witnesses in the federal bribery trial of former lobbyist Gilbert Baker of Conway, who once served as the chairman of the Arkansas Republican Party and a state senator.

U.S. District Judge D. Price Marshall Jr. read aloud the list of potential prosecution and defense witnesses during the jury selection process Friday in Little Rock. The procedure was aimed at excusing prospective jurors with close ties to any witnesses.

Opening statements are scheduled for Monday. Marshall said the trial is expected to last three weeks.

Among prominent names on the prosecution’s potential witness list are state Supreme Court Justice Rhonda Wood, nursing home owner Michael Morton of Fort Smith and former Circuit Judge Mike Maggio, who’s serving a 10 year prison sentence after pleading guilty to an alleged bribery scheme involving Baker.

Prominent names on the defense’s list of potential witnesses include Cody Hiland, who was the U.S. attorney in Little Rock until he resigned in December. Hiland was appointed to the office by former President Donald Trump in October 2017. As U.S. attorney, Hiland, who is also from Conway, recused from the Baker case.

The Baker indictment, filed in January 2019, accuses Baker of being the middleman in a plot to bribe Maggio, who had presided over a negligence lawsuit against a Greenbrier nursing home owned by Morton. Resident Martha Bull of Perryville died there at age 76 in April 2008. Despite her screams of pain, she was never taken to a hospital. Bull’s family then filed a negligence lawsuit against Morton’s Greenbrier Nursing and Rehabilitation Center.

In 2015, Maggio pleaded guilty to taking a bribe to lower a Faulkner County jury's judgment in the negligence case from $5.2 million to $1 million.

Former U.S. Attorney Cody Hiland

Hiland was the prosecutor for Faulkner County when Maggio entered that plea. Maggio had been a circuit judge in Faulkner County until the state Supreme Court ordered him removed from office in September 2014 because of an unrelated issue involving inappropriate comments Maggio made online

Should Hiland testify, he could be cross-examined by either of two assistant U.S. attorneys he formerly supervised, Patrick Harris and Julie Peters.

Baker, 64, is charged with bribery, wire fraud and conspiracy in an alleged plot to benefit himself, Morton and Maggio, who at the time was preparing to run for a position on the Arkansas Court of Appeals. Morton has not been charged with a crime.

Prosecutors have said that in early July 2013, Baker hired an attorney, Chris Stewart, to create eight of 10 political action committees to which Morton then donated. Baker also sent a fax asking Morton to donate $3,000 to each of the PACs and suggested additional donations to a nonprofit called Arkansans for Lawsuit Reform, Wood's 2014 Supreme Court campaign and Baker's employer at the time, the University of Central Arkansas. 

Wood, who is seeking re-election, was previously a circuit judge who worked in the same courthouse in Conway as Maggio. The two were friends and exchanged text messages just before 5:30 p.m. on July 9, 2013 — the day Baker got a package containing the PAC checks and other money for a total of $228,000 from Morton. Prosecutors have not disclosed the content of the texts.

In 2019, when an Arkansas Democrat-Gazette reporter asked Wood about the texts, she sent a response by email: “Unfortunately, I do not retain texts for five and a half years. I personally reached out to the U.S. Attorneys office this morning and asked if they could provide it to me. My goal was to be able to release it. They did not provide it.” Asked if she could remember the text messages’ content, Wood said she had no further comment, noting “that was so long ago.”

Other potential witnesses for the prosecution announced Friday include Stewart, former UCA President Tom Courtway and lobbyists Bruce Hawkins, Marvin Parks and Steve Goode.

Courtway was UCA president when Baker served in an executive position at the university. Baker was forced to resign after the UCA Foundation chose to return a $100,000 donation Morton had made to it through Baker. Baker then moved to a much lower-paying job — as a music professor — and has since retired. 

Other potential defense witnesses include state Auditor Andrea Lea and Tim Fox, a circuit judge in Pulaski County.

COVID-19 restrictions made for an unusual scene at Friday’s proceedings. Judge Marshall, attorneys and Baker wore masks during much of the jury selection process, and the judge told prospective jurors that the court would require masks starting next week. News media and spectators sat in a separate room where the proceedings were simulcast. The pool of 90 prospective jurors were spread out over three courtrooms, and jurors were gradually brought into the main courtroom as the pool narrowed.

After selecting 12 jurors and three alternates, Marshall gave preliminary instructions to the jurors and released them until Monday at 8:30 a.m.

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.