A federal jury in Little Rock acquitted former lobbyist and political fundraiser Gilbert Baker of conspiracy Thursday but failed to reach a verdict on eight other charges, including one count of bribery and seven of wire fraud. The deadlock ended a two-week trial marked by high-profile witnesses, failing memories, legal jargon and an unwelcome guest: the coronavirus pandemic.
“We appreciate the jury’s service on such a lengthy and complex case,” Assistant U.S. Attorney Julie Peters said. “While we are reviewing our options, we intend to retry the defendant on the remaining counts.”
Neither Baker nor defense attorney Blake Hendrix immediately returned messages seeking comment.
The jury returned its decision on the fifth day of deliberations following a two-week trial in which several witnesses indicated they had trouble remembering some events that took place in 2013, when prosecutors allege the crimes occurred.
The proceedings were further complicated by the coronavirus. One of the lead prosecutors, Assistant U.S. Attorney Patrick Harris, had to step away a few days into the trial after being diagnosed with COVID-19. A different prosecutor, Assistant U.S. Attorney John Ray White, substituted in for Harris after being updated on the case. (One juror also tested positive for COVID at the outset of the trial and was replaced with an alternate.)
Baker, 64, a former state lawmaker from Conway and former chairman of the Republican Party of Arkansas, could have been sentenced to five years in prison on the conspiracy charge. He was accused of conspiring to commit bribery, wire fraud or both.
If retried and convicted of the remaining charges, he could face 10 years on the bribery count and 20 years on each of the wire fraud counts. Judges can order sentences to be served concurrently or consecutively.
Shortly after the jury’s decision, the U.S. attorney’s office filed a motion asking Chief U.S. District Judge D. Price Marshall Jr. to allow prosecutors to talk with willing jurors and alternates about the case.
In the indictment and trial, prosecutors argued that Baker was 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 for the prosecution, pleaded guilty to bribery in 2015 and is serving a 10-year prison sentence. Morton has not been charged and denies wrongdoing.
“The prosecutors used questionable judgment taking this case to trial,” said attorney Bud Cummins, who represented Baker in the criminal investigation until Baker was indicted in January 2019. Cummins served as U.S. Attorney for the Eastern District of Arkansas from 2001 to 2006.
After Cummins withdrew from the case, the court appointed Hendrix to represent Baker.
“If they attempt to retry Gilbert Baker, it would be a demonstration of incompetent leadership. They did their job. It is over. The case is never getting better,” Cummins said.
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. Bull had entered the nursing home for what she thought would be a 30-day rehabilitation after suffering 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.
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 in the Bull lawsuit to $1 million. At Baker’s trial, Maggio testified that he lowered the judgment both because he thought it was legally the right thing to do and because he was bribed.
In closing arguments, the defense questioned Maggio’s credibility and reminded jurors that Maggio has changed his story repeatedly over the years. First, he proclaimed his innocence, then pleaded guilty, only to try unsuccessfully to withdraw that plea later. He finally backed off that effort and began cooperating with the government just before Baker was indicted — in hopes of getting a reduced sentence, Hendrix said during the trial.
“What version is true?” Hendrix asked Maggio during cross-examination.
Maggio’s behavior on the witness stand was at times odd, considering his years as a judge. At one point, he called a female campaign donor a “pretty baby.” At another point, he removed his mask and smiled toward the area where jurors were about to sit.
Other high-profile witnesses included former University of Central Arkansas President Tom Courtway, who fired Baker as an executive assistant over the scandal; Arkansas Supreme Court Justice Rhonda Wood, who used to work in the same small courthouse annex in Conway as Maggio; and former U.S. Attorney Cody Hiland, who was a prosecutor in Faulkner County during part of Maggio’s tenure as a judge.
Morton also donated $48,000 to Wood’s first campaign for the high court but did so directly, rather than routing it through PACs as he did with Maggio. Prosecutors argued that Baker got Morton to donate to Maggio’s campaign via PACs exactly because it was a more roundabout, less transparent method.
“The use of PACs in this scheme is not benign,” White said in closing arguments.
“This is the first time ever that Mr. Morton had put his money into a PAC,” Peters added later.
The case at times seemed bogged down in legal and political jargon, from the acronym “PACs” to terms such as “refreshment” (not a beverage, but an attempt to refresh a witness’ memory) and “remittitur” (the lowering of a monetary judgment in a lawsuit).
“The case seemed complex, but in fact, both sides agreed to most every relevant fact,” Cummins said in an email. “Nobody disputed what happened. Yet the facts undoubtedly seem complex to anyone who is unfamiliar with civil jury trials, political fundraising, PACs, or the modern dynamics of judicial elections usually pitting big plaintiff attorney money against big nursing home money. Normal people don’t live in that world. The prosecutors and agents obviously never understood it.”
“The prosecutors read newspaper articles and got excited, but they still waited five years until the statute of limitations was about to run [out] to indict Baker because they could not find evidence of criminal conduct, even in the testimony of the Judge [Maggio] from whom they squeezed a guilty plea. And then several more years waiting for trial. People forget irrelevant details in seven or eight years,” Cummins said.
This reporting is courtesy of the Arkansas Nonprofit News Network, an independent, nonpartisan news project dedicated to producing journalism that matters to Arkansans.