Defense focuses on disgraced judge’s credibility as Baker bribery case goes to jury

Gilbert Baker leaves U.S. District Court in Little Rock, wearing a mask and carrying papers and a composition book. Two women are in the background.
Gilbert Baker exits the U.S. courthouse on Friday afternoon (Credit: Brian Chilson)

Jurors in the bribery trial of former lobbyist Gilbert Baker went home for the weekend after hearing closing arguments and deliberating less than two hours Friday afternoon.

Deliberations will resume Monday morning in U.S. District Court in Little Rock. Jurors have endured two weeks of testimony, more than a little legal jargon, and two coronavirus scares that sent one former juror and a prosecutor home with the virus and led to all trial participants being tested for it.

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, who testified against Baker last week, pleaded guilty to bribery in 2015 and is serving a 10-year prison sentence. Morton has not been charged and denies wrongdoing.

Jury instructions read aloud by Chief U.S. District Judge D. Price Marshall Jr. indicated the prosecution had granted immunity to two of the government’s witnesses — Little Rock attorney Chris Stewart and Linda Leigh Flanagin, who worked for Baker’s lobby business LRM Consulting.

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. Bull had entered the home for what she thought would be a 30-day rehabilitation after she suffered a mild stroke and an abdominal illness, but she died less than two weeks later. Despite screams of pain, staff at the facility did not take her to a hospital. 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 motion 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 for the Arkansas Court of Appeals. 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.

“The use of PACs in this scheme is not benign,” Assistant U.S. Attorney John Ray White said in closing arguments. The PACs were officially set up by Stewart, the Little Rock attorney, but Baker controlled how the money was spent. White noted that some officers listed on the PACs' legal filings had testified that they didn’t even know Baker had used their names as officers until news broke about the controversy surrounding the donations to Maggio.

White noted that Baker also got Morton to donate directly to some candidates, rather than routing the money through PACs. Morton gave $48,000 directly to Arkansas Supreme Court Justice Rhonda Wood’s first campaign for the high court. 

In contrast, Baker opted to go a more roundabout way — via PACs — when asking Morton to donate to Maggio’s 2014 campaign for the Arkansas Court of Appeals. Morton testified last week that he had thought the money would in turn go to Maggio’s campaign, but knew he would no longer have control of it once it was received by the PACs. Ultimately, Maggio got some but not all of the PAC donations.

“This is the first time ever that Mr. Morton had put his money into a PAC,” Assistant U.S. Attorney Julie Peters said.

In the defense’s closing, attorney Blake Hendrix attacked the credibility of Maggio, whom he called “the government’s chief accuser.” Hendrix recounted how Maggio has changed his story repeatedly. 

First, Hendrix noted, Maggio professed his innocence. In 2015, he pleaded guilty but later unsuccessfully fought to withdraw the plea and said he’d been pressured into accepting it. (He went to prison in July 2017.) Then, in December 2018, just before Baker’s January 2019 indictment, Maggio began cooperating with federal investigators in hopes of getting a reduced prison sentence, Hendrix said.

“He wants to go home. He wants to go now,” Hendrix said.

“He wants to throw Rhonda Wood under the bus, Gilbert Baker, everyone, under the bus … good, decent people,” Hendrix 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. So, Maggio said, he deleted them. (In her testimony last week, Wood said that she and Maggio had been colleagues but not “personal friends.”)

Mike Maggio in 2016 (Credit: Brian Chilson)

During testimony, Maggio sought to explain why he had had so much trouble in the past admitting he had taken a bribe. Maggio said he had originally thought of a bribe as something involving a bag full of money and a handshake in exchange for a favor. There was no black bag in this case, Maggio said.

“How credible is Mike Maggio [as] a witness?” Hendrix asked jurors. “When you hear Mike Maggio, it makes you pause … and question him. It should.”

Maggio is “one of the least credible witnesses I can even imagine,” Hendrix said. He noted that former U.S. Attorney Cody Hiland, who was once a prosecutor in Faulkner County, testified that Maggio had an untruthful reputation in the community.

“This is a simple case,” said Hendrix, who has previously argued for a bench trial due in part to the case’s legal complexities. “Don’t get distracted by PACs and campaign contributions.”

Peters later countered that Maggio was not the case’s centerpiece and that there was plenty of “corroborating evidence.” She said Maggio’s reputation was much better in 2013, when she said Hiland had indicated he was “proud to be your [Maggio’s] friend.”

She noted that Maggio had been an attorney and a judge for several years. “The idea that he would walk into a courtroom and plead to something he didn’t do” doesn’t make sense, Peters said.

Peters questioned why Baker had ever communicated with Maggio out of court about the Bull lawsuit in 2013, considering Maggio was presiding over the case. “He talked to him because he needed him to make the right decision," Peters said — meaning the one Baker thought would make Morton happy. Prosecutors have argued Baker was concerned he was losing favor with Morton at the time and was eager to prove his worth.

Peters also noted that Baker solicited the money from Morton well before the 2014 election in which Maggio was running for the Court of Appeals. Judicial candidates can legally solicit or accept donations only within a certain window of time before the election. Baker had to get Morton’s campaign money early, Peters said, because Baker “had to hide” the money, because “the money was a bribe.”

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