Former Conway lawmaker to face retrial on federal bribery charges

Gilbert Baker (right) and his attorney, Blake Hendrix, exit the U.S. courthouse during Baker’s first trial (Credit: Brian Chilson)

Federal prosecutors plan to retry former lobbyist and political fundraiser Gilbert Baker on bribery and other charges after a mistrial earlier this month.

Chief U.S. District Judge D. Price Marshall Jr. on Friday set the retrial to begin in Little Rock on Oct. 4.

On Aug. 12, a jury on its fifth day of deliberations acquitted Baker, a former state senator from Conway and former chairman of the Republican Party of Arkansas, of one count of conspiracy. The jury deadlocked on eight other charges, including one count of bribery and seven of wire fraud.

In its notice to the court Thursday, the U.S. attorney’s office stated only that it intended to retry Baker and did not elaborate on what may have led prosecutors to that decision. The office had earlier sought and been granted permission to interview jurors who heard from the first trial who were willing to discuss the matter. Such interviews could have given prosecutors information on how jurors were divided on the case and why.

Assistant U.S. Attorney Patrick Harris declined comment Friday when asked about the retrial plans and juror interviews. Baker’s defense attorney, Blake Hendrix, did not immediately return a phone message or an email seeking comment Friday.

Prosecutors contend Baker, 64, 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 pleaded guilty to bribery in 2015 and is serving a 10-year prison sentence. Morton has not been charged and denies wrongdoing.

The decision to retry Baker came a day after a sealed motion was filed in Maggio’s case. Maggio testified for the prosecution in the Baker trial in hopes of getting his prison sentence reduced. According to U.S. Bureau of Prisons records, Maggio is not currently in the federal prison system’s custody. Cooperating inmate witnesses are sometimes held temporarily in nearby facilities while they meet with federal investigators.

The Aug. 12 deadlock ended a sometimes chaotic two-week trial marked by high-profile witnesses, failing memories, legal jargon and the coronavirus pandemic. A juror came down with the virus before opening statements and was replaced by an alternate. Then, days later, Harris, one of two prosecutors handling the case, became sick and had to be replaced. 

Baker did not testify in his own defense.

Had Baker been convicted of conspiracy, he could have been sentenced to five years in prison on the charge, which accused him of conspiring to commit bribery, wire fraud or both.

If retried and convicted of the remaining charges, he could face up to 10 years on the bribery count and up to 20 years on each of the wire fraud counts. Judges can order sentences to be served concurrently or consecutively.

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.

Other high-profile witnesses included Arkansas Supreme Court Justice Rhonda Wood, former U.S. Attorney Cody Hiland and former University of Central Arkansas President Tom Courtway. Wood used to work in the same small court annex in Conway where Maggio worked, and Hiland was the prosecuting attorney in Faulkner County during part of Maggio’s judicial tenure. Baker worked as an executive assistant at UCA when the Maggio scandal began to unfold.

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 because it was a more roundabout, less transparent method.

Bud Cummins, who represented Baker until the indictment against him came down in January 2019, said he thought a retrial was “a bad decision based on my knowledge of the case.” 

Cummins served as U.S. attorney for the Eastern District of Arkansas from 2001 to 2006. After he withdrew from the case in 2019, the government appointed Hendrix to represent Baker.

“It boils down to this: Every fact in that trial can be explained by legal intentions,” Cummins said. “So, it is very difficult to understand how a jury can know beyond a reasonable doubt that someone had corrupt intentions. Even if they believe he was guilty, they can only speculate that he had corrupt intent and that is not worthy of a second trial.”

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.