Nursing home magnate Michael Morton has long been considered a go-to guy for those looking to raise political campaign money in Arkansas.
For the past 16 years, the Fort Smith businessman and his nursing homes have given more than $1.3 million to dozens of political races in Arkansas, according to FollowTheMoney.org. The website is operated by the National Institute on Money in State Politics, a nonprofit in Helena, Montana, that collects campaign contribution disclosures for all state-level candidates in primary and general elections throughout the United States.
Morton told the Arkansas Ethics Commission that campaign managers come to him as early as possible to build up large war chests for candidates, according to a 46-page report the commission completed in June and which was released to Arkansas Business.
Morton gave the statements as part of an investigation into campaign contributions to former Faulkner County Circuit Judge Michael Maggio through political action committees set up by former state Sen. Gilbert Baker. In the summer of 2013, Morton, through his entities, donated a total of $24,000 to political action committees intended for Maggio’s campaign for a seat on the Arkansas Court of Appeals. At the same time the donations were made, Maggio was presiding over a case involving Morton’s nursing home in Greenbrier (Faulkner County).
Within days of Morton giving the campaign money, Maggio reduced a jury’s $5.2 million judgment against the nursing home to $1 million.
On Jan. 9 of this year, Maggio waived indictment and pleaded guilty to the federal charge of accepting a bribe in exchange for reducing the jury verdict. A sentencing date hasn’t been set.
The case surrounding Maggio, however, has provided a peek inside the world of campaign fundraising in Arkansas.
In an interview with Arkansas Business, Morton declined to comment on the Maggio case. But in statements made to the Ethics Commission, he denied any wrongdoing.
Morton told Arkansas Business that he’s been making political donations to candidates “forever.”
In addition to personally donating the legal limit (currently $2,000 per election) to selected campaigns, Morton would also make donations to a campaign through his nursing homes.
Morton told the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette in 1997 that he recalled using his companies to buy 13 tickets at $500 each for a 1989 Christmas party arranged by Bill Clinton’s gubernatorial campaign committee.
Morton said the nursing home industry is just like any other that supports campaigns.
“If you want to be able to discuss your business with people who are making policy, most of the time they’ll at least listen to you if you have been a supporter of theirs,” Morton told Arkansas Business. “Now it doesn’t mean that they’re ever going to do anything that you say, but most of the time they will listen.”
Jay Barth, a political science professor at Hendrix College in Conway, told Arkansas Business recently that political donations like Morton’s were not “inherently a problematic thing.”
“I think good legislators listen to anyone,” Barth said.
Morton said he considers a candidate’s track record before he makes a contribution. If a candidate opposes nursing homes or every social program, “I’m probably not going to be for that person.”
Morton told the Ethics Commission that the campaign season never ends. Morton said he has learned that if the nursing home industry doesn’t stay politically active, “they do not get the money they need to take care of the elderly in Arkansas; the funding will be cut,” the Ethics Commission report said.
Barth said the nursing home industry is “one of the most prominent, if not the most prominent, kind of player in political money in Arkansas.”
The Baker Connection
In May 2013, according to the Ethics Commission report, Morton ran into his longtime friend Gilbert Baker, a Republican who represented Conway until he was term limited, at Brave New Restaurant in Little Rock. Baker asked if Morton would support Maggio if he ran for a seat on the Arkansas Court of Appeals.
Morton said he would.
Morton told Arkansas Business that he bases the decision to support judges on whether “they follow the laws of Arkansas. … And I look at what they’ve done in the past, not ever what I think they’re going to do in the future.”
The Ethics Commission report said Morton noted that trial lawyers give money to judicial races “all the time and yet he is getting negative feedback for doing it.”
Matthew Hass, CEO of the Arkansas Trial Lawyers Association, said in an email statement to Arkansas Business that “we have no comment on the situation as there is an ongoing investigation.”
Morton told the Ethics Commission that he had previously supported Baker’s recommendations. And at that time, Morton said, he wasn’t sure that Baker knew that Maggio was presiding over a case involving one of Morton’s nursing homes.
A campaign consultant had told Maggio that he would need to raise $100,000-$150,000 to win a seat on the Court of Appeals, according to the Ethics Commission report.
Barth, the political science professor, said political races for judges are complicated because the judicial code of ethics prohibits them from knowing who contributed to their campaigns.
“I think we know that in reality, that’s a little naive for us to assume that those that are elected as judges don’t know who gave them the money,” Barth said.
Coming to Light
In 2014, the Blue Hog Report blog revealed boorish and unprofessional comments Maggio made online using a pseudonym, and that lead to revelations about Morton’s campaign contributions. Maggio withdrew from the Court of Appeals race.
Morton acknowledged to the Ethics Commission that the timing of his contributions to Maggio’s campaign looked bad. But he told the commission that “he gave the money then because that is when he was asked for it.”
Baker also denied any wrongdoing, according to his statement to the Arkansas Ethics Commission.
Baker “cannot explain the timing of the contributions and the donations,” the report said. Baker told the commission that “he was not trying to influence the outcome of any court case with the contributions from Michael Morton.”
Maggio, however, apparently thought he was being “improperly influenced” to lower the judgment.
“Mr. Morton and Mr. Baker are trying to get depositions of everyone to go forward [to understand] what Judge Maggio’s, quote, understanding was,” Baker’s Little Rock attorney Richard Watts told Arkansas Business last week.
Watts represents Baker in a lawsuit filed by the plaintiffs whose verdict was reduced by Maggio. Morton and Maggio have also been named as defendants, and that case is pending.
Maggio’s attorney, Lauren Hamilton of Little Rock, declined to comment.
A spokeswoman for the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Eastern District of Arkansas said that she couldn’t comment on the Maggio case.