The bribery trial of former state senator Gilbert Baker hit a snag first thing Monday morning after an announcement by Chief U.S. District Judge D. Price Marshall that a juror had tested positive for covid-19 over the weekend and had been excused.
After the remaining jurors and alternates were individually polled -- each one said they could continue without distraction -- Marshall elected to continue with the trial. At one point, Blake Hendrix of Little Rock, one of Baker's defense attorneys, told Marshall he might move for a mistrial or for the jury to be dismissed and Baker be given a bench trial, in which the presiding judge would hear the evidence and decide the case.
Marshall denied a motion filed last year by Baker's attorneys to conduct the trial as a bench trial. In his ruling, the judge said, "it is the Court's job to interpret the law, not the jury's. If there's some dispute about what the applicable law is, then the parties should air it in their pretrial motions. This case is not so complex that a properly instructed jury would be unable to apply the applicable law to the facts."
Baker, 64, of Conway, is a former political fundraiser, a past chairman of the state Republican Party and a former executive and music teacher at the University of Central Arkansas. His trial on accusations that he was the middleman in an effort to bribe former Faulkner County Circuit Judge Michael Maggio is expected to last three weeks.
Assistant U.S. Attorney Julie Peters said during opening statements Monday morning that the government would prove Baker funneled bribes to Maggio to reduce a $5.2 million wrongful death award to $1 million in 2013 when Maggio was running for a seat on the Arkansas Court of Appeals.
The lawsuit had been filed against the nursing home by the family of 76-year-old Martha Bull of Perryville, who died in 2008 about two weeks after being admitted for an expected month-long rehabilitation for a mild stroke and an abdominal illness. The family said a doctor was never summoned despite Bull's tears from pain and nausea, her cold and clammy skin, and blood in her stool.
Defense attorney Annie Depper of Little Rock told jurors that no direct evidence exists of a bribe because there was no bribe. Depper said all the contributions Baker raised were legitimate campaign contributions.
In July 2013, Maggio lowered a $5.2 million jury verdict against the owner of Greenbrier Nursing and Rehabilitation Center to $1 million. His action occurred July 10, the day after 10 $3,000 checks written by the nursing home's owner, Michael Morton, arrived at the home of Baker, a friend and political ally of Maggio. The checks were made out to political action committees that were primarily helping Maggio's campaign for a seat on the state Court of Appeals.
On Monday, jurors heard from two former associates of Baker's -- Linda Leigh Flanagin and Ancil Lea III -- who were named as officers to political action committees formed by Baker that prosecutors allege were created to disguise the source of campaign contributions to Maggio. Flanagin, a former co-worker of Baker's, testified during about 80 minutes of sometimes contentious testimony that although she was named as an officer of the Conservative Persons, Inc. Political Action Committee, she had no duties and knowledge of the workings of the PAC.
"You didn't get paid?" asked Assistant U.S. Attorney Patrick Harris.
"I didn't get paid," Flanagin said. "No training."
"Honorary title," said Harris.
"You never did anything?"
Under Harris' questioning, Flanagin testified that she was given immunity from prosecution by the government in exchange for her testimony. Flanagin said Baker had called her just after she met with FBI investigators in July 2014 to see how the interview went, prompting Harris to inquire how Baker knew about the meeting.
"I may have told him," Flanagin said.
"What did he say?" Harris asked.
"He wanted to know how it had gone," Flanagin replied.
"And what did you tell him?" Harris asked.
"I told him I couldn't talk about it," she said.
"And what did he say?" Harris asked.
"I think he wanted me to talk about it," Flanagin replied, matter of factly.
She said Baker was frustrated that she wouldn't tell him what had been discussed during the interview with the FBI and U.S. attorney's office, but said she never revealed to Baker what had transpired during the interview.
"You told him, didn't you?" Harris challenged her.
"Did I testify that I told him?" Flanagin shot back.
Lea, a Conway businessman and consultant, testified under questioning by Peters that his friendship with Baker, which dated to the 1980s, had cooled around 2010, but that they were still on friendly terms, meeting for coffee every few months. He testified that in the summer of 2013, Baker had come to him with the idea of putting Lea's name on a political action committee, even though Lea had never served on a political action committee. The PAC Lea was named to was the Citizens for Information Technology.
"I said I'm not opposed," Lea said. "It sounds like a good idea to me."
That was the last he heard of the idea until Spring 2014, Lea said, when Baker contacted him to tell him not to talk to the media about the PACs. He said that prompted him to look further into the activities of the PAC, at which time he discovered the PAC had given money to several political candidates that he was not made aware of.
Up until then, he said, he had no knowledge that the PAC existed or that he was named as an officer. Lea said he had no recollection of a letter from Little Rock attorney Chris Stewart informing him that he was an officer of the PAC. Stewart, another Baker associate, has been named as a possible witness in the trial.
"My question to Chris was, how could you form this PAC without my signature?" Lea testified.
FBI Special Agent Jacob Stokes identified numerous pages of phone records that showed phone call and text message activity between phones belonging to Baker, Maggio, Morton, Arkansas Supreme Court Justice Rhonda Wood, and others.
Wood, who received about $50,000 in campaign contributions from Morton for her state Supreme Court campaign, is expected to be called to testify at some point in the trial.
Morton, a Fort Smith businessman, is also expected to testify in the trial. He has said the money was meant for Maggio's judicial campaign but wasn't an attempt to influence the outcome of the lawsuit. Morton has called the timing of the checks written July 8, 2013, the same day his lawyers asked Maggio to void or cut the jury award to Bull's family, "coincidental."
Stokes will be back on the stand as court resumes at 8:30 this morning for cross examination.