Juror sent home with COVID, but political bribery trial moves forward

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

The long-awaited bribery trial of former state Sen. Gilbert Baker, a former Republican lobbyist from Conway, began Monday with news that a juror had contracted the coronavirus.

The unidentified juror had been present for jury selection Friday and contacted the court Sunday night to advise of the diagnosis.

U.S. District Judge D. Price Marshall Jr. excused the juror, who did not attend Monday’s court session, and named one of three alternates to fill the vacancy,  Marshall did so only after polling the jurors to make sure none of them objected to continuing with the trial. None did.

Marshall has required protective masks be worn in the courthouse in downtown Little Rock.

Baker, a former chairman of the Arkansas Republican Party and a University of Central Arkansas executive, is charged with bribery, wire fraud and conspiracy in an alleged plot to benefit himself, former Faulkner County Circuit Judge Michael Maggio and Michael Morton, a nursing-home owner and campaign financier.

During opening statements, Assistant U.S. Attorney Julie Peters told a story of greed, power, political favors and corruption. Defense attorney Annie Depper said jurors would not hear any evidence of bribery because there was no bribery.

Both attorneys’ narratives and questioning of the first witnesses also suggested Arkansas Supreme Court Justice Rhonda Wood’s name will become an integral part of both the case for Baker and the case against him. Wood and Maggio were friends who had worked in the same courthouse when both were circuit judges in Faulkner County.

The Baker indictment, filed in January 2019, accuses him of being the middleman in a plot to bribe Maggio, who presided over a negligence lawsuit against a Greenbrier nursing home owned by Morton. Resident Martha Bull, 76, of Perryville died there in April 2008, less than two weeks after entering the facility. She was never taken to a hospital despite screams of pain.

Maggio, who is serving a 10-year prison sentence, pleaded guilty to taking a bribe in 2013 to lower a jury's $5.2 million judgment to $1 million in a negligence lawsuit Bull’s family filed against Greenbrier Nursing and Rehabilitation Center. 

“We are here today because Gilbert Baker bribed Mike Maggio to make that happen,” Peters said Monday.

Depper, however, noted that Maggio could have overturned the verdict and granted a motion for a new trial, helping Morton even more so. 

The key events that will be the focus of Baker’s trial occurred in 2013, after the Bull case resulted in the $5.2 million judgment against Morton’s nursing home. Peters told jurors that Morton called Baker after learning of the verdict “and for more than six minutes, he chewed out Gilbert Baker.” Upon hanging up, Baker immediately texted Maggio, she said.

At one point, Peters said, Baker and Maggio had gone out to eat with Morton, and Baker made it clear to Morton that he needed four things:

Financial support for Maggio, who was preparing to run for the Arkansas Court of Appeals.

Financial support for Wood, then an appeals court judge preparing to run for the Arkansas Supreme Court in 2014.

Money for Arkansans for Lawsuit Reform, a nonprofit organization that lobbied to overhaul the state’s lawsuit regulations by limiting monetary judgements. 

Donations for UCA, Baker’s employer at the time.

On July 8, 2013, prosecutors have said, Morton sent a FedEx envelope containing $228,000 in checks to Baker — money to cover those requests. Of that sum, $48,000 was for Wood, $100,000 was for UCA and $50,000 was for the lawsuit organization. The remaining $30,000 was for a group of political action committees. Maggio’s campaign got some but not all of the money.

UCA later returned the money to Morton after learning of controversy surrounding the donation.

The next day, July 10, Maggio ordered the lawsuit judgment reduced.

Depper said Morton will testify that the timing was “coincidental.” She said Baker was “a phenomenal fundraiser.”

She said Maggio was a conservative judge who “struggled” with his decision in the lawsuit over Bull’s death. He even consulted with several friends and professional associates about the matter, she said — Wood, Pulaski County Circuit Judge Tim Fox and a law clerk.

Depper noted that Maggio tried unsuccessfully to withdraw his guilty plea in 2016 and said he had been pressured by the U.S. attorney’s office into pleading guilty. He feared prosecutors were going to indict his wife, Dawn Maggio, Depper said.

Depper repeatedly referred to a text in which Baker told Maggio he would have Morton’s campaign support “win, lose or draw.”

“Everyone knows that means ‘no matter what,’” Depper said.

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.