Defense rests in Gilbert Baker bribery trial

From left: Mike Maggio, Gilbert Baker and Michael Morton.

The defense rested its case Thursday in the federal bribery trial of former lobbyist and state Sen. Gilbert Baker without calling the Conway Republican to testify on his own behalf.

Attorneys are to present closing arguments Friday in U.S. District Court in Little Rock. Chief Judge D. Price Marshall then will give jurors instructions, and deliberations will begin.

Baker, a former chairman of the Republican Party of Arkansas, is charged with bribery, wire fraud and conspiracy. He is accused of being the middleman in an alleged plot in 2013 to bribe former Faulkner County Circuit Judge Mike Maggio on behalf of Michael Morton, a wealthy nursing home owner and campaign financier from Fort Smith. Maggio pleaded guilty to bribery in 2015 and is serving a 10-year prison sentence. Morton has not been charged and denies wrongdoing.

Prosecution witnesses ranged from Maggio and Morton to Arkansas Supreme Court Justice Rhonda Wood to former University of Central Arkansas President Tom Courtway.

Defense witnesses included former U.S. Attorney Cody Hiland; Stacy Hurst, secretary of the Arkansas Department of Parks, Heritage and Tourism; and the oldest of Baker’s eight children, Stephen Baker.

The case against Baker, 64, 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.

On July 8, 2013, Maggio held a hearing on the nursing home’s bid for a new trial or a reduced judgment. 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, that Morton expected would in turn give the money to Maggio’s campaign. The next day,  a FedEx package containing the checks arrived at Baker’s home. On July 10, 2013, Maggio reduced the $5.2 million lawsuit judgment to $1 million.

Maggio testified last week that he did indeed accept a bribe in return for lowering the judgment against Morton’s nursing home.

Testifying Wednesday, Hiland said he had talked with Maggio a number of times over the years and did not believe Maggio was a truthful person. Hiland said he believed the community in general felt that way about Maggio as well. Hiland was not asked to give examples.

Like Gilbert Baker, Hiland lives in Conway and is a Republican. He was appointed U.S. attorney by former President Donald Trump in 2017 and resigned last December. Hiland is also a former prosecuting attorney in the 20th Judicial Circuit, which includes Faulkner, Van Buren and Searcy counties — the area also served by Maggio when he was a judge.

On Thursday, Hurst, a Republican who ran unsuccessfully for the state House of Representatives in 2014, testified that Baker had recruited her to run and raised $50,000 to $60,000 for her campaign. She estimated that $20,000 of that amount came from nursing homes and said she also received some funds from political action committees.

Controversy began developing in March 2014 around 10 political action committees controlled by Baker to which Morton had donated $3,000 each. At that point, Hurst said, “I made the decision it was best for my campaign to return” any Baker-related PAC money she had received.

She did not, however, return the $50,000 to $60,000 that Baker had raised for her directly, she said.

Also Thursday, Baker’s son, Stephen, testified that in February 2014 he was applying for a government job when his dad texted him and said in part, “I am so proud of you no matter what happens today win, lose or draw.”

Baker used the same “win, lose or draw” expression in a May 2013 text in which he told Maggio that Morton was backing him “win, lose or draw.” Maggio said he took that to mean Morton was watching the Bull lawsuit trial and that Morton “was involved.” Maggio indicated it was a reference to Baker’s alleged effort to get him to reduce the verdict.

Stephen Baker testified, though, that he had never known his father to use the term in ways other than to mean “regardless of the outcome.”

In addition to testimony jurors have heard over the past two weeks, they have a mountain of documents available for review.

Documents awaiting jurors’ attention include records of phone calls and texts made and received by Baker during key times in the years covered by the case — portions of May and June of 2013 and July 2014 — along with records of donations to and payments from various political lobbying organizations with ties to Baker and a forensic analysis of those expenditures.

Prosecutors also hope a Faulkner County state audit report will prove that federal funds went through Maggio’s office, thereby justifying the bribery charge under federal law. Defense attorneys say the vast amount of the federal money at issue went to the prosecutor’s office, not the judge’s.

Because eight years have passed since the alleged scheme, attorneys have often had to refresh witnesses’ memories. The defense unsuccessfully sought a bench trial, citing an array of legal terms that have arisen during the trial and have required the judge to explain them to jurors. The defense also cited repeated distractions caused by the coronavirus pandemic. One prosecutor and one former juror have contracted the virus. 

At one time, Baker was a political powerhouse in Conway and Arkansas as a whole. For years, he worked to prevent restaurants in dry Faulkner County from calling themselves private clubs so that they could sell alcoholic beverages. (It was news, therefore, when police arrested him in 2016 for drunk driving; a subsequent drug test showed he had also used methamphetamine.

Still, in 2017, when the city of Conway dedicated an interchange off Interstate 40, it proceeded with a previous decision to change the roadway’s name to Baker-Wills Parkway in honor of Baker and former state House Speaker Robbie Wills.

The trial has had a few light moments. In hopes of deterring the coronavirus in the courtroom, the temperature was lowered to the point that a couple of jurors requested blankets to keep warm, despite the sweltering heat outdoors.

At one point, Judge Marshall told jurors they needed to be patient with the lengthy and sometimes convoluted proceedings and referenced a tune he used to sing his daughters when they were young, “The Patient Song.” On Thursday, jurors returned from a recess with a note asking Judge Marshall to sing it for them.

Marshall said he had a little singing experience and obliged them, singing to the tune of the children’s song, “Frere Jacques.” The judge’s lyrics began: “I am patient / I am patient / Patient me / Patient me”

But when he got to the line where he was to spell out the word “patient,” he had to think a bit, evoking laughter. He later told jurors that there shouldn’t be more lawyer conferences with the judge starting Friday and added, “There’s not going to be any more singing either.”

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.