State Supreme Court Justice takes witness stand in federal bribery trial of Conway lobbyist

Associate Supreme Court Justice Rhonda Wood

Arkansas Supreme Court Justice Rhonda Wood testified Tuesday that she never talked with former Circuit Judge Michael Maggio about his decision to alter a jury’s award in a nursing home negligence case in 2013 — a ruling that led to Maggio’s imprisonment and to federal bribery charges against former lobbyist Gilbert Baker.

Wood’s testimony for the prosecution came near day’s end at Baker’s trial in U.S. District Court in Little Rock. She is to continue testifying Wednesday.

Wood’s statement contradicts defense attorney Annie Depper’s assertion during opening statements Monday that Maggio had “struggled” with the 2013 ruling so much that he consulted with Wood, Pulaski County Circuit Judge Tim Fox and a law clerk about the decision.

The prosecution contends Baker, a former state senator from Conway and former chairman of the Arkansas Republican Party, was the middleman in a plot to bribe Maggio, who had presided over the negligence lawsuit against a Greenbrier nursing home owned by Fort Smith businessman Michael Morton. Resident Martha Bull of Perryville died there at age 76 in April 2008. Baker, 64, is charged with bribery, wire fraud and conspiracy.

In 2015, Maggio pleaded guilty to taking a bribe in 2013 to lower a Faulkner County jury's $5.2 million judgment to $1 million in the lawsuit Bull’s family filed against Morton’s Greenbrier Nursing and Rehabilitation Center. The facility is one of 37 nursing homes in Arkansas and Oklahoma owned by Morton, a wealthy campaign financier.

Her voice trembling at times, Wood recalled that she and Maggio had been colleagues but not “personal friends” and worked in the same courthouse annex when both of them were circuit judges in Faulkner County. She would later move up to the Arkansas Court of Appeals, then the Arkansas Supreme Court.

Wood, who is seeking re-election, said she does not remember ever discussing the Bull case with Maggio.

More than once in her testimony, Wood said, “I apologize” and noted she could not remember everything that happened so long ago.

She did remember a car trip that she, Maggio and Troy Braswell, now a Faulkner County circuit judge, took together to Fort Smith on July 10, 2013, for a ceremony involving a sheriff. That was the same day Maggio slashed the $5.2 million judgment in the Bull case — a judicial action Wood indicated earlier is rare.

Assistant U.S. Attorney Patrick Harris asked Wood if Maggio talked during the trip about the July 8, 2013, hearing in his courtroom that led him to issue the order. During that hearing, Morton’s attorneys asked Maggio to either order a new trial or lower the monetary award in the Bull family’s lawsuit.

“He did not,” Wood said.

“I don’t have any sort of recollection of that [negligence lawsuit trial] standing out,” she testified. But she might have been aware it was going on, Wood added.

Earlier Tuesday, Morton was called as a witness. He testified that he had not even known there was a hearing in Maggio’s court that July 8. On that same day, Morton had $228,000 in checks made out and sent to Baker.

“In hindsight, it looks horrible,” Morton said. He has previously described the timing as a “coincidence.”

The money, sent via FedEx, arrived at Baker’s home the next day, and on July 10, 2013, Maggio cut the size of the jury’s award.

The FedEx package contained $30,000 in checks for 10 political action committees that Morton wanted to be directed to Maggio’s 2014 campaign for the Arkansas Court of Appeals. Some but not all of it ended up going to Maggio’s campaign. Also inside were checks totaling $48,000 for Wood’s campaign and $50,000 for Arkansans for Lawsuit Reform, a nonprofit organization in which Baker was involved.

Wood became irritated when Harris questioned her about texts she and Baker exchanged the day Baker got the package. The texts have been deleted, and Baker and Wood say they cannot remember their contents, according to the prosecution.

Harris asked Wood if Baker was perhaps telling her in a text that Morton’s money had arrived.

“Certainly it was not,” she replied.

Wood said she was “shocked” when she realized Baker had changed the dates on the checks from July 2013 to late November 2013 to conform with state law on when judicial candidates can legally solicit and accept campaign donations.

“If he had told me about that at the time, I would have told him to return them,” she said.

Harris kept pressing Wood about the texts, prompting her to say that she resented his “implication.”

The FedEx package from Morton to Baker also included $100,000 for the University of Central Arkansas, Baker’s employer at the time. UCA returned the donation after learning of the controversy surrounding it.

Morton has not been charged with a crime and has denied wrongdoing. 

Morton said he gave money to Maggio’s campaign only because Baker asked him to do so and because his own lawyers had told him Maggio “was a good judge.”

“There was no bribe,” Morton testified.

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.