State Supreme Court Justice Wood cleared of ethics allegations

Associate Supreme Court Justice Rhonda Wood

A state judicial ethics commission has dismissed a complaint filed against Arkansas Supreme Court Justice Rhonda Wood, saying an investigative panel had found “insufficient cause to proceed.”

Wood praised the decision by the Arkansas Judicial Discipline and Disability Commission and called the complaint “baseless, without merit, and politically motivated.”

The allegations against Wood, filed by the Arkansas Public Law Center on Dec. 24, centered on testimony given by her and other witnesses last summer at the federal corruption trial of a former lobbyist. In part, the complaint accused Wood of violating judicial ethics in 2014 by telling one of her former colleagues, then-Circuit Judge Michael Maggio, to delete certain text messages.

Ernie Dumas, a director at the Public Law Center, signed the complaint. (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.)

The Judicial Discipline and Disability Commission sent a letter dated April 15 notifying Wood of the dismissal after an investigative panel completed its review.

“The investigation initiated by this complaint did not reveal or find sufficient facts to support a claim of judicial misconduct, wrong-doing, or incapacity within the Commission’s jurisdiction,” wrote David Sachar, the commission’s executive director.

“It’s disappointing that these false and misleading accusations received attention before they were fairly examined by the JDDC,” Wood said in an emailed statement. “Fortunately, in the justice system, the truth matters.”

“I have been nothing but forthcoming about the truth and have always acted with integrity through this very difficult process and confident justice would prevail,” she added.

Wood, a former circuit judge from Conway, is unopposed in her bid for re-election to the Supreme Court this year.

Dumas said he had not received a copy of Sachar’s letter to Wood. He noted, however, that the letter offered “no explanation for the investigating committee’s finding or who the investigating committee members were.”

“I thought the commission might deal with each of the complaints and explain its findings, as courts, including the Supreme Court, ordinarily do,” Dumas said in an emailed statement.

Dumas said he based the complaint on testimony given at the bribery trial last year of former state Sen. Gilbert Baker. Baker, a former lobbyist and former chairman of the Arkansas Republican Party, once raised campaign funds for candidates including Wood and Maggio, the former circuit judge. Both Wood and Maggio testified at Baker’s trial in U.S. District Court in Little Rock. 

A jury ultimately acquitted Baker of conspiracy to commit bribery, but a mistrial was declared on eight other charges. A retrial on those counts is to begin with jury selection May 17.

Baker is charged in an alleged bribery scheme involving Maggio and nursing-home owner and campaign financier Michael Morton of Fort Smith.

Maggio pleaded guilty in 2015 to bribery and was recently released from prison after serving less than half of a 10-year sentence. Morton has denied wrongdoing and is not charged with a crime.

Wood once served alongside Maggio as a circuit judge in Faulkner County before winning election to the Arkansas Court of Appeals in 2012 and then the Supreme Court in 2014. Like Maggio, Wood’s campaign received donations arranged by Baker, including $48,000 from Morton or his nursing homes. 

Morton’s donations to Wood’s campaign, however, were made directly, rather than being routed through political action committees, or PACs, as they were for Maggio’s campaign. Federal prosecutors argued that Baker arranged for Morton to donate to Maggio’s campaign via PACs because it was a more roundabout, less transparent method.

Wood testified during the Baker trial that she had talked with Maggio in 2014 about deleting certain 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. Maggio’s withdrawal followed a scandal over inappropriate online comments Maggio had made, including details of a confidential Arkansas adoption case involving actress Charlize Theron. 

Wood said she and Maggio did not discuss deleting texts about campaign contributions made via Baker.

Sachar said the judiciary investigative panel dismissed the complaint against Wood on April 7 by a vote of 2-0. A third person recused, he said. He did not identify the panel’s members.

“The issues alleged had been vetted by the U.S. Department of Justice,” Sachar wrote in an email. “Additionally, the Executive Director of the JDDC is permitted by Rule to initiate an investigation. … Although some of the allegations were the subject of notoriety at the time, no such inquiry was initiated by the Director.

“After conducting the investigation and reviewing the documents and transcripts, the JDDC Investigation Panel did not find sufficient cause to proceed,” Sachar said.

The corruption charges against Baker stem from events in 2013, when Maggio presided over a negligence lawsuit against a Michael Morton-owned nursing home in Greenbrier. A jury in that case awarded a $5.2 million judgment to the family of Martha Bull, a 76-year-old Perryville woman who died in 2008 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, some of which was to be deposited in several PACs. Some of the money was intended for Maggio, and some was for Wood. (Wood did not play a role in the Bull case.)

The Public Law Center complaint against Wood contended she spoke to Maggio about deleting certain text messages shortly after the news broke about Maggio’s lowering the nursing home judgment. Wood acknowledged at the trial last summer that she did talk to Maggio about deleting texts, but the contents of those texts is not clear. Wood insisted they were “not texts regarding the PACs” and that she and Maggio did not discuss deleting texts he had exchanged with any individuals other than Wood. 

“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 alleged.

However, neither trial testimony nor the complaint specifies exactly when in March 2014 the conversation between Maggio and Wood took place.

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

This story 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.