Ethics complaint targets state Supreme Court Justice Rhonda Wood

Associate Supreme Court Justice Rhonda Wood

A complaint filed against Arkansas Supreme Court Justice Rhonda Wood has accused her of violating judicial ethics by telling then-Circuit Judge Michael Maggio in 2014 to delete certain text messages.

The Arkansas Public Law Center filed the complaint with the Arkansas Judicial Discipline and Disability Commission on Dec. 24. The complaint was signed by Ernie Dumas, a director at the Public Law Center. (Dumas, a retired journalist, is also the chairman of the board of the Fred Darragh Foundation, a nonprofit that acts as the fiscal sponsor for the Arkansas Nonprofit News Network and has donated to ANNN in the past.)

Wood, who is seeking re-election this year, did not respond to multiple requests for comment for this article. Robert Coon, a political consultant who has commented on Wood’s behalf in the past, also did not return a phone message seeking comment.

Last summer, Wood testified in the trial of Gilbert Baker, a former Republican lobbyist accused of participating in a bribery scheme involving Maggio. Wood once served alongside Maggio as a circuit judge in Faulkner County before ascending to the Arkansas Court of Appeals and later the Supreme Court. Like Maggio, her campaign received donations arranged by Baker, a former state senator from Conway and onetime chairman of the state Republican Party.

At the Baker trial, Wood acknowledged that she had talked with Maggio in 2014 about deleting text messages. But, she said, the texts in question related to Maggio’s decision to withdraw from his race for the Arkansas Court of Appeals that year. That withdrawal followed a scandal over inappropriate comments Maggio had made online.

Wood said that she and Maggio did not discuss deleting texts about a separate matter: campaign contributions made through political action committees, or PACs, controlled by Baker.

The PAC contributions to Maggio led to a federal bribery investigation that eventually sent Maggio to prison and led to criminal charges against Baker. In 2014, however, news of the PAC contributions did not break until about a week after the scandal developed over Maggio’s inappropriate comments online.

According to a court transcript from Baker’s trial, a prosecutor asked Wood if she had talked with Maggio about “whether he should delete texts on his phone.”

“Yes, in regards to why he withdrew from the race,” Wood replied.

“Not texts with you?” Assistant U.S. Attorney Pat Harris asked.

“Not texts regarding the PACs,” Wood said.

The prosecutor pressed Wood on whether she and Maggio had also discussed deleting texts that he had exchanged with others.

“Just you?” Harris asked.

“Just me,” Wood said.

“Anybody else?” Harris asked.

“No,” she said.

Maggio, however, later testified that Wood had asked him in March 2014 to delete text messages he had exchanged with her as well as texts he had exchanged with Baker.

”Did you delete your text messages?” Assistant U.S. Attorney Julie Peters asked Maggio.

“Yes, ma’am,” Maggio said.

The PAC contributions at the root of the case against Baker and Maggio originated with Michael Morton, the owner of multiple nursing homes in Arkansas and a frequent political donor. In 2013, Maggio presided over a negligence lawsuit against a Morton-owned nursing home in Greenbrier. A jury in that case awarded a $5.2 million judgment to the family of Martha Bull, who died after a short stay in the Greenbrier facility.

In July 2013, Maggio slashed the jury’s verdict to $1 million, two days after Morton sent tens of thousands of dollars in checks to Baker’s house that were to be deposited in several PACs controlled by Baker. Some of the money was intended for Maggio. A portion was also intended for Wood.

Federal prosecutors allege Baker was the middleman in an effort to bribe Maggio to reduce the size of the judgment in the Martha Bull case. Morton has never been charged with a crime and denies wrongdoing. 

Maggio’s downfall began on March 3, 2014, when a liberal political blog, Blue Hog Report, reported that the judge had made inappropriate online comments on a website for Louisiana State University fans, including details of a confidential Arkansas adoption case involving actress Charlize Theron. Maggio withdrew from the race on March 6.

On March 11, 2014, Blue Hog Report broke a second story — this one about the timing of the PAC donations to Maggio’s campaign and the reduction of the verdict in the Martha Bull case.

The Public Law Center complaint against Wood contends she spoke to Maggio about deleting certain text messages shortly after the news broke about Maggio’s lowering the nursing home judgment. But neither trial testimony nor the complaint specifies exactly when in March 2014 that alleged conversation took place.

“By instructing Maggio to delete texts between Maggio and herself, especially after the story had broken regarding Maggio and the Martha Bull remittitur, Wood specifically engaged in activity that undermined the integrity and gave the appearance of impropriety,” the complaint alleges.

“Wood’s instructions to Maggio regarding deleting texts to/from Wood arguably amount to tampering with evidence,” the complaint alleges.

In September 2014, the state Supreme Court ordered Maggio removed from office because of his online comments and other matters unrelated to the PAC contributions. He later pleaded guilty to bribery. Maggio was recently released from prison after serving less than half of a 10-year sentence.

Baker’s trial last summer ended in an acquittal on a conspiracy charge. The jury deadlocked on eight other charges, and a retrial on those counts is to begin May 16.

The Judicial Discipline and Disability commission’s executive director, David Sachar, declined comment on the pending case. Sachar said state regulations “provide that our investigations must be completed and the case concluded within 18 months.”

“Virtually all are completed within a year,” Sachar said Wednesday. “Some are completed via dismissal within two to three months.”

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