CONWAY - Nursing-home tycoon Michael Morton said a woman who worked with former state Sen. Gilbert Baker was the one who asked him last year to support Circuit Judge Michael Maggio’s since-halted campaign for the Arkansas Court of Appeals while Maggio at the time was presiding over a lawsuit against one of Morton’s nursing homes.
Baker, now an administrator at the University of Central Arkansas in Conway, said the woman would have been Linda Flannigan but that she was not one of his employees. Rather, he said, he had hired her to work for LRM Consulting Inc., a political consulting corporation that he started in 2012.
Baker said he had not known about the conversation between Morton and Flannigan.
“I did not tell her to do that or instruct her to do that,” Baker said Wednesday.
He said he had no discussions with Flannigan or Morton about giving to Maggio’s campaign.
The state’s Judicial Discipline and Disability Commission is investigating allegations about contributions given to Maggio at the time of the nursing-home case. Also under investigation are online comments that Maggio acknowledged making about a wide range of topics after Blue Hog Report, a Little Rock-based blog, first linked them to the judge.
Maggio officially withdrew from the appeals court race March 6 and earlier apologized for the comments. Contention surrounding Morton’s campaign contributions surfaced later.
Also surfacing late were two unrelated reports. One that a lawyer has requested the transfer of a case out of Maggio’s courtroom because of online comments Maggio had made about women and divorce; and another related to a problem with a hot check that had been endorsed over to Maggio.
Flannigan did not return a message left Wednesday at a Little Rock number listed for her on a document filed with the secretary of state’s office. That document is the registration form filed July 31 for the Conservative Persons In PAC, which lists her as officer and is one of seven Morton-linked political action committees.
Baker said he was sure that Flannigan would have been “very clear” in distinguishing between seeking support and seeking campaign funds because judicial candidates in Arkansas are prohibited from seeking or accepting such money until 180 days before an election. The judicial elections are May 20.
Flannigan has “raised money for several candidates … but she works under her own direction,” Baker said. “I know she’s got a lot of irons in the fire,” not just LRM Consulting.
Further, her affiliation with the Conservative Persons In PAC would not have been “as a representative of LRM,” Baker said.
Morton said the nursing-home case was never mentioned during the discussion of supporting Maggio, who lowered a trial jury’s $5.2 million judgment against Morton’s Greenbrier nursing home to $1 million three days after Morton donated money to the PACs.
“People are making these wild accusations,” Morton said. “I didn’t try to bribe a judge.”
Until March 11, Baker was listed as LRM Consulting’s president, secretary and treasurer on an incorporation document filed Dec. 5, 2012. That document also listed Little Rock lawyer Chris Stewart as the registered agent.
Stewart is also the “resident agent/officer” on the seven political action committees to which Morton gave donations. Morton said he thought the PACs were formed to support Maggio’s campaign.
Baker, a Conway Republican, said in a series of interviews that he had his name removed from the incorporation document last week at the instruction of UCA President Tom Courtway. The document now says James McAlister is the president, secretary and treasurer. McAlister, already the company’s incorporator/organizer, remains in that position.
Baker said he had planned for LRM Consulting to do consulting and possibly fundraising, but he had quit working with it “basically” when he joined UCA in Jan. 15, 2013, as executive assistant to the president.
Last week, Courtway saw references to LRM Consulting on “blogs” that were covering the Maggio contention and asked about it, Baker recalled.
“I had somewhat forgotten about it,” Baker said. He recalled telling Courtway, “‘I don’t have anything to do with it’” anymore.
“Tom very directly said, ‘You need to get the paperwork changed on that.’ So, I worked through that process to get the paperwork changed. Tom was right to ask,” Baker added.
Courtway said he did not know about LRM Consulting until recently.
“I don’t want him [Baker] fundraising” for political candidates, even on his own time, Courtway said.
Baker, like others, is free to “support whoever they want [in off hours] but in terms of actively fundraising … I did not want him doing that,” Courtway said.
Baker said he’s not doing any more political fundraising.
“Basically, in my mind, I think of myself as a 24-hour UCA employee,” he said.
Morton said Tuesday that he was having lunch at Brave New Restaurant in Little Rock when “that girl that works with Gilbert - Flannigan, I think is her name” - asked him to support Maggio. At that time the trial of the lawsuit against Morton’s Greenbrier Nursing and Rehabilitation Center was going on. Morton also has said the request could have come as late as July, when Maggio was hearing a defense motion to reduce the trial jury’s May judgment.
Morton, who owns 32 nursing homes in four states, said he didn’t know whether Baker was at the restaurant with Flannigan. Baker said he was not.
In response to Flannigan’s request, Morton said, “I said, ‘Just send me something.’”
He said someone later faxed him a single sheet of paper listing the seven PACs. Morton said he no longer has that sheet.
“It said this was the Maggio campaign,” he said. Morton said he looked at the sheet, gave it to his secretary and “said, ‘Write these checks’” to these PACs.
Stewart said Wednesday that he did not send Morton the fax, that he didn’t know anything about it and that he had no previous knowledge of the nursing-home case.
“I never knew that it existed,” he said. “I’ve never met Mr. Morton” or Maggio, Stewart said.
Six of the seven PACs had given donations almost exclusively to Maggio as of Dec. 31, but Stewart said the PACS were “absolutely not” formed almost solely for Maggio.
Stewart said that when the PACs file their next quarterly reports on April 15, “They will show other contributions to other candidates.”
On how he came to be the resident agent of the seven PACs, Stewart said, “I have a client … who asked me to set up PACs, and that’s what I do.” Stewart, an attorney, said the client’s name was “privileged” information.
Asked if he had formed other PACs, Stewart said, “I don’t talk about other PACs” and would not say whether he had formed any others. He said that information also was “privileged,” even though PAC registrations and officers are posted on the secretary of state’s public website.
Maggio did not return a phone message or email seeking comment Wednesday.
Meanwhile, Helen Rice Grinder, a Conway attorney representing a woman in a post-divorce property division case, has filed a motion asking Maggio to transfer the case to another judge in light of his online comments.
Grinder said it was reasonable to question Maggio’s impartiality after what she called his “sexist, racist, and otherwise inappropriate” comments. She said Maggio has made decisions in the case and her client’s related cases “based on his own personal biases and prejudices rather than making rulings based on the evidence.”
Grinder specifically referred to online comments the judge made about women and divorce. “He explains why he believes women generally should not get alimony and that he rarely orders alimony. He includes comments that call wives ‘chattel’ or possessions,” she wrote in the motion.
Another Maggio-tied matter that recently surfaced involves a hot check that was endorsed to him.
In 2012, Todd Rivers, who then was living in Amarillo, Texas, sent a $2,500 check dated July 3 to his ex-wife, Dawn Rivers. Records obtained from the Faulkner County prosecuting attorney’s office under the Arkansas Freedom of Information Act show that Dawn Rivers, who is Maggio’s girlfriend, endorsed the check to him and then Maggio endorsed it.
Records show that the check was returned because of insufficient funds. Maggio as a result became the victim in the case, which initially was assigned to his court because he handles hot-check cases.
Stephen Ralph, who was assigned as public defender for Todd Rivers in the hot check case, said Rivers never appeared before Maggio while Ralph was involved in the case.
A warrant for Todd Rivers’ arrest was issued in October 2012. He had a first appearance in court on March 4, 2013. The signature on documents for that appearance appears to be that of David Reynolds, another circuit judge at that time, even though the case was still in Maggio’s Division 2 court. Maggio transferred the case to another division on March 26, 2013.
Prosecuting Attorney Cody Hiland said his office handled the felony hot-check case as it would have any other “except for recognizing the obvious conflict” and having a judge other than Maggio sign the arrest warrant.
Todd Rivers ultimately made good on the check and hot-check fees, and the case was dropped, Hiland said.