At Arkansas Business, we try not to devote too much staff time to news and issues that are being covered well by other news organizations. The saga of Mike Maggio, disgraced former Faulkner County circuit judge, and the wheeling and dealing that led to his pleading guilty to accepting a bribe is one of those stories that we have left in the capable hands of other reporters.
Therefore, I was just as gobsmacked as anyone else to read, in the July 4 issue of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, Debra Hale-Shelton’s account of the $8,000 “bonus” that a group promoting tort reform had paid to Republican lawyer Chris Stewart specifically so that he, his wife and his law firm could contribute $6,000 of it to Maggio’s campaign for the Arkansas Court of Appeals.
Happy birthday, America! I’m certain this is just the sort of democracy our Founding Fathers had in mind.
Maggio’s campaign for a promotion was aborted, you may recall, not because he accepted a bribe in order to reduce a wrongful death verdict against a nursing home, but because blogger Matt Campbell caught him acting a fool while using a pseudonym in an online discussion group.
Hale-Shelton’s article was the latest in the drip-drip-drip of revelations gleaned from sworn depositions and affidavits filed in a civil case accusing nursing home operator Michael Morton and Gilbert Baker, the former legislator turned lobbyist, of corrupting Maggio. The plaintiffs are the family of the nursing home patient whose painful death resulted in a $5.2 million verdict against Morton’s company — the verdict that Maggio reduced to $1 million in exchange for a promised contribution from Morton by way of Baker. (The family had accepted the reduced verdict gracefully when they assumed Maggio was acting in good faith.)
As a judge, Maggio can’t be sued for his role in the nursing home case. He did plead guilty in a federal criminal case and has been sentenced to 10 years in federal prison, but he remains free while he asks an appeals court to let him withdraw his guilty plea. (The U.S. Supreme Court recently overturned the bribery conviction of former Virginia Gov. Bob McConnell because federal prosecutors were overzealous in applying bribery statutes in that particular case. But, unlike McConnell, Maggio did admit to taking an official action — changing a jury’s decision — in exchange for the money. And we know that’s why he did it because he admitted it in court.)
Stewart’s “bonus” came from Arkansans for Lawsuit Reform, an organization set up by Morton and Baker for the purpose of lobbying for limits on verdicts like the one jurors reached in the suit against Morton’s Greenbrier nursing home. Stewart had done work for the organization, and he had set up several PACs for Baker to which Morton was making contributions, but Stewart understood that three-quarters of the bonus was not his to keep.
As Hale-Shelton reported, Stewart said he “felt sick” when news reports in 2014 revealed that contributions were flowing from Morton to Baker’s PACs for Maggio’s benefit at the very time Maggio was considering (and granting) Morton’s motion for reduction of the jury verdict. “I can’t testify as to what anybody’s intentions were, but it just didn’t — did not look right and didn’t smell right, just as an attorney looking at it,” Stewart said in his sworn deposition.
One might wonder why an attorney didn’t feel sick when he was asked to serve as a straw donor — especially by people seeking to influence the court system of which he is a sworn officer. Or if Stewart did have some discomfort, the $2,000 he got to keep was apparently enough to cure it. (The dose of cash required to overcome an acute attack of conscience seems to vary widely in politics.)
Lobbyists Bruce Hawkins and Marvin Parks (another former legislator) also did work for Arkansans for Lawsuit Reform and also contributed to Maggio’s campaign, but they don’t seem to have been straw donors. Hawkins admitted that he knew nothing about Maggio’s fitness for the Court of Appeals when he gave him money; he just did as Baker asked. One might almost conclude that Maggio’s chief judicial qualification was that he was willing to be indebted to the nursing home lobby.
I don’t spend enough time with politicians and lobbyists to know whether this is politics as usual in our state. I have a sick feeling that it may be since so many prominent names seem to have been all in. The reporting that uncovered Maggio’s corruption and the reporting that continues to reveal the tentacles of improper influence have been a great service to the state. Some politicians might actually think twice about doing something they wouldn’t want Debra Hale-Shelton or Matt Campbell to learn about.
Gwen Moritz is editor of Arkansas Business. Email her at GMoritz@ABPG.com.