Arkansas Supreme Court Justice Rhonda Wood said Thursday that she had attempted to obtain copies of text messages that federal prosecutors say she exchanged in July 2013 with a former lobbyist now charged with bribery and other offenses.
A federal grand jury last week indicted former state Sen. Gilbert Baker, a former chairman of the Arkansas Republican Party, on one count each of bribery and conspiracy and seven counts of wire fraud in a reported scheme involving an imprisoned former judge, Michael Maggio, and nursing-home owner Michael Morton, who has not been charged.
In an email to the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, Wood said, "Unfortunately, I do not retain texts for five and a half years. I personally reached out to the U.S. Attorneys office this morning and asked if they could provide it to me. My goal was to be able to release it. They did not provide it."
Asked if she could remember the text messages' content, Wood said she had no further comment, noting "that was so long ago."
In other developments:
• U.S. Attorney Cody Hiland has recused from the case.
• Maggio is currently being held in a privately operated detention facility in Mason, Tenn.
Baker and Wood live in Conway, where Hiland has lived and worked in the past. Hiland formerly was the prosecuting attorney for the 20th Judicial Circuit, where Wood and Maggio formerly were circuit judges.
John Ray White, criminal chief of the U.S. attorney's office, is acting as U.S. attorney in the Baker case.
Speaking through Assistant U.S. Attorney Pat Harris, White declined to comment late Thursday on Wood's statement.
Asked if the prosecution has the content of the text messages, Harris said, "It will all come out at trial."
Even when the content of text messages no longer is available, phone records can indicate that they took place between specific phone numbers at specific times.
Baker, 62, is scheduled to enter a plea Thursday.
According to the indictment against Baker, he and Wood exchanged texts on July 9, 2013. The indictment identifies her only as Individual E, but she has confirmed that she is Individual E.
The criminal investigation stemmed from Maggio's ruling on July 10, 2013, to reduce a Faulkner County jury's $5.2 million judgment against a Greenbrier nursing home to $1 million in the 2008 death of patient Martha Bull of Perryville.
Two days earlier, on July 8, 2013, Fort Smith businessman and nursing-home owner Morton had either written or had someone write 10 $3,000 checks on his behalf to 10 political action committees after Baker faxed him the political action committees' names with specified amounts, according to the indictment.
Maggio's campaign ultimately received several thousand dollars but not all of the political action committee donations.
A Federal Express package containing the checks arrived at Baker's home on July 9, 2013. The package also included a $100,000 check to the University of Central Arkansas Foundation, two $25,000 checks for a nonprofit trade association that supported an overhaul of lawsuit regulations, and $48,000 in checks for the campaign of another judicial candidate, Wood, the grand jury found.
"In total, Individual A [Morton] provided $228,000 in checks to Baker," the indictment says.
Both Baker and Morton have denied wrongdoing.
The grand jury indictment says that on July 9, 2013, Baker talked to Maggio by phone for six seconds at 3:30 p.m. At 3:31 p.m., it says Baker again called and spoke with Maggio for one minute and 22 seconds. At 4:05 p.m., Baker called Individual A (Morton) and talked for 8 minutes and 27 seconds. At 5:24 p.m., Baker texted Individual E (Wood), the indictment says. She texted Baker back at 5:27 p.m, it says.
The indictment does not provide the content or nature of any of those communications.
In a statement last week, Wood said she has cooperated with the U.S. Department of Justice and "Any attempt now or in the future to insinuate that I have done anything but act in the interest of furthering justice is false."
Maggio was incarcerated in a federal prison in Kentucky but recently has been held in Mason, Tenn., a temporary holding facility.
Bill James, a criminal defense attorney who has practiced in federal court, said Maggio's move to Mason "absolutely" suggests that Maggio could have begun cooperating with prosecutors.
The timing issue is another factor, noted James, who is not involved in the Maggio or Baker cases. Maggio's transfer preceded Baker's indictment. Further, Maggio recently asked to withdraw his motion to get out of prison on the basis of ineffective counsel and innocence.
"It's not uncommon for people to ... decide they want to cooperate" after they spend some time in prison, James said.
Maggio, who pleaded guilty to bribery in 2015, began serving a 10-year prison sentence in 2017.
Baker was a state senator from 2001 until mid-January 2013. He unsuccessfully sought the Republican nomination for the U.S. Senate in 2010. He also is a former top executive at the University of Central Arkansas, where he now teaches music.
State Desk on 01/18/2019