A nursing home magnate, one of Arkansas’s highest-ranking jurists and a former judge in shackles were among witnesses in the first week of the federal bribery trial of former lobbyist Gilbert Baker.
Prosecutors sought to weave an intricate tale of political ambition and greed while the defense focused on a key witness’ lack of credibility. Both sides struggled at times to jog witnesses’ memories of events that happened as far back as 2013 and 2014.
Baker, a former state senator from Conway and former chairman of the state Republican Party, is charged with bribery, wire fraud and conspiracy. He is accused of being the middleman in an alleged plot to bribe former Faulkner County Circuit Judge Michael Maggio on behalf of Michael Morton, a wealthy nursing-home owner and campaign financier. Maggio is now serving a 10-year sentence in federal prison after pleading guilty to accepting a bribe.
The long-awaited trial has attracted spectators to the U.S. courthouse in Little Rock, including law students and attorneys not involved in the case. It has also drawn an unwelcome guest: the coronavirus. The night before opening statements on Monday, a juror called in sick with COVID-19 and was replaced by one of three alternates. Then, on Thursday, one of the case’s two prosecutors, Assistant U.S. Attorney Patrick Harris, said he too had become sick and was being tested for the virus. Hours later, Harris’ test came back negative, though he still wasn’t able to be in court.
The trial has featured “one unexpected thing after another,” Chief U.S. District Judge D. Price Marshall Jr. said. Marshall canceled Friday’s court session so that the assistant prosecutor filling in for Harris, John Ray White, could get up to date on the case.
The case against Baker centers around Maggio’s handling of a negligence lawsuit filed against Morton’s Greenbrier Nursing and Rehabilitation Center over the 2008 death of resident Martha Bull, 76, of Perryville. On May 16, 2013, a Faulkner County jury returned a $5.2 million judgment for Bull’s family.
Attorneys for Morton requested a new trial or a reduced judgment, and on July 8, 2013, Maggio held a hearing on the motion. That same day, Morton’s office made out checks totaling $228,000, with $30,000 of that sum going to political action committees, or PACs, controlled by Baker. Morton has said he intended the PACs to give the money to Maggio’s 2014 campaign for the Arkansas Court of Appeals.
On July 9, 2013, a FedEx package containing the checks arrived at Baker’s home.
On July 10, 2013, Maggio reduced the $5.2 million judgment against Morton’s nursing home to $1 million.
Morton, who has not been charged with a crime, took the witness stand on Tuesday. “In hindsight, it looks horrible,” he testified. But, Morton said, when his office made out the checks on July 8, 2013, he had not even known the hearing in Maggio’s court was happening the same day.
“There was no bribe,” Morton said.
As for why he donated money intended for Maggio’s campaign, he said, “My lawyers told me he was a good judge. He followed the law.”
Morton said it was Baker’s idea to put the $30,000 into PACs rather than donate it directly to Maggio’s campaign, as Morton and his companies did for Arkansas Supreme Court Justice Rhonda Wood, when she first ran for the high court. (Prosecutors called Wood as a witness on Tuesday.) Ultimately, Maggio’s campaign got some but not all of the $30,000, which came to Baker in the form of ten checks for $3,000 each.
The prosecution played a recording of Baker saying he did not ask Morton for specific contribution sums.
“Is that true?” Harris asked Morton.
“No,” Morton replied.
Morton said Baker had sent a fax suggesting specific donations. In addition to the ten $3,000 PAC checks, Morton said Baker’s fax had asked for $50,000 for Wood’s campaign; $50,000 for Arkansans for Lawsuit Reform, a political advocacy organization; and money for the University of Central Arkansas, Baker’s employer at the time. The fax did not recommend a sum for UCA, Morton said.
Morton ended up sending Baker $100,000 for UCA, $48,000 for Wood’s campaign, and the other donations as requested. UCA returned Morton’s money in 2014 after controversy surrounding the Bull lawsuit and the donations began making headlines in March 2014.
Escorted by federal marshals, Maggio entered the courtroom Wednesday in shackles, but at Judge Marshall’s suggestion, they were removed. He wore a black T-shirt and trousers, a gray beard, a black mask, and the same outgoing, chatty personality he was long known for in Conway.
He joked, even when such behavior was anything but pro forma for a courtroom. He greeted attorneys as he walked to the witness stand. He referred to one of his campaign donors as a “pretty baby.” And yes, he said, he took a bribe.
Maggio pleaded guilty to taking a bribe in 2015. In July 2017, he began serving a 10-year sentence. He testified that under his plea agreement, he hopes to get his sentence reduced for cooperating with the government.
He said he lowered the judgment against Morton’s nursing home for two reasons. First, he said, he felt there was a legal basis for the decision. Second, he said, he was bribed.
In 2013, Baker told Maggio by text message that he would have Morton’s support, “win lose or draw.” Baker’s lawyers have used that text to argue he wasn’t offering a bribe. “Everyone knows that means ‘no matter what,’” defense attorney Annie Depper said in opening statements.
When Maggio was asked about the text this week, he said he thought it was implied that “Mr. Morton would be … more happy” with anything that would benefit the nursing home.
During cross-examination, the defense focused on Maggio’s changing stories, with defense attorney Blake Hendrix asking, “What version is true?”
First, Maggio had indicated back in 2014 that he was innocent. Then, three months after his first interview with federal agents, he pleaded guilty in January 2015. While awaiting sentencing, though, he unsuccessfully fought to withdraw his guilty plea, saying prosecutors had threatened to indict his wife, Dawn Maggio, if he didn’t plead guilty.
He appealed all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court, which refused to hear the case.
“I was like General Flynn. … I tried to withdraw my plea,” Maggio joked during his testimony, referring to Michael Flynn, who served briefly as national security adviser under former President Donald Trump.
Then, in December 2018, Maggio halted efforts to get his sentence overturned.
Maggio sought to explain why he had so much trouble admitting he had taken a bribe. He said he used to think of a bribe as something involving a backpack full of money handed to someone in exchange for a favor. In his case, no one gave him a backpack with money, he said.
He also testified that it was one of his former attorneys, not a federal prosecutor, who had made him fear his wife might get indicted. His wife wasn’t even aware of the bribe, he said.
Assistant U.S. Attorney Julie Peters asked Maggio when was the first time he told his wife face to face that he had taken a bribe.
“Last week maybe,” he said.
Maggio testified that he had been friends with Wood, who worked in the same courthouse annex in Conway as he did when she, too, was a circuit judge. He testified that Wood asked him to delete texts he had exchanged with her and Baker.
Peters asked Maggio if he had deleted them. “Yes, ma’am,” he said.
Wood has testified but has not been excused as a witness, meaning she may be called back for follow-up questions. She has not been charged with a crime.
Maggio insisted there was a legal basis for his lowering of the judgment in the Bull case. Otherwise, he said, “I would have not granted it.”
Hendrix asked Maggio about a visit Morton attorney John Everett paid to Maggio at a prison in Kentucky on March 13, 2019. Do you remember telling Everett “that you do not believe that Gilbert Baker bribed you?”
“At this time, no, I don’t,” Maggio said.
Masks are mandatory in the federal building, even for jurors. Witnesses, however, typically remove their masks when testifying so that jurors can hear them better and see any facial expressions. When Maggio testified, he said he preferred to wear a mask because he has not been vaccinated for the coronavirus.
Court employees then found a transparent mask. Trimmed in white and tied behind the head, it somewhat resembled the mask a scuba diver might wear, except it didn’t cover the eyes.
When Maggio later learned that a juror had complained about not being able to see Maggio’s face behind the unusual mask, he pulled it down briefly and grinned in the direction of the jury box, though jurors were just beginning to return to the courtroom.
At the end of his testimony Thursday, the judge asked Maggio to remove the mask so jurors could see his face. Maggio did so, stood up and joked, “Have you had enough of me?”
After Maggio’s time on the witness stand ended Thursday, prosecutors called Little Rock lawyer Chris Stewart, a former attorney for the Republican Party of Arkansas. Stewart testified that in the summer of 2013, Baker hired him to create eight of the PACs that received checks from Morton. He said Baker decided which candidates got the PAC money and how much.
Stewart said a couple of the PAC officers contacted him to say that “they had no knowledge of the PACs.” Stewart then called Baker and had a “conversation” about the matter.
“I knew there were major issues. Something was going on,” Stewart said.
Stewart said he “fired” Baker as a client. “He was not being honest.”
Upon learning about the negligence lawsuit against Morton and the reduction of the verdict, Stewart said, “I was shocked.”
He said he gathered the relevant emails, text messages and other information and voluntarily took the materials to federal investigators, who granted him immunity from prosecution.
Stewart also told how he got an $8,000 bonus from Arkansans for Lawsuit Reform, a nonprofit political advocacy group he had created for Baker, with the understanding that he would see that the $8,000 in turn was donated to Maggio’s campaign. Straw donations are a way political donors can conceal their identity.
Ancil Lea, a former Faulkner County justice of the peace, testified that he was one of the PAC officers who didn’t know his name was on the PAC form filed with the Arkansas secretary of state’s office.
Asked if he would have wanted the PAC to give money to Maggio’s campaign, Lea said, “Never” and described a bad business deal in the 1990s involving Maggio.
The trial resumes Monday morning with more witnesses for the prosecution.
This reporting is courtesy of the Arkansas Nonprofit News Network, an independent, nonpartisan news project dedicated to producing journalism that matters to Arkansans.