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Remitted verdict for campaign contributions, ex-judge testifies in Baker trial

by Dale Ellis | July 28, 2021 at 2:28 p.m.
Arkansas Democrat-Gazette/BENJAMIN KRAIN --3/24/2016-- Ousted Faulkner County Circuit Judge Michael Maggio was sentenced to 10 years in prison after pleading guilty in federal court to reducing a jury’s judgment in exchange for campaign contributions.

The bribery trial of former lawmaker Gilbert Baker entered its third day of testimony Wednesday with former Faulkner County Circuit Court judge Michael Maggio testifying about Baker's role in raising campaign funds that ended up landing Maggio a 10-year sentence in federal prison after he pled guilty to taking a bribe.

Baker, 64, a former political fundraiser from Conway and past chairman of the state Republican Party, is accused of serving as a middleman in an effort to bribe Maggio.

Baker is accused of bribing Maggio to reduce a $5.2 million jury award against Greenbrier Nursing and Rehabilitation Center in 2013 following a lawsuit filed by the family of Martha Bull. Bull died two weeks after being admitted to a one-month rehabilitation stint at the center, owned by Michael Morton of Fort Smith. Morton has not been charged with a crime.

Maggio pleaded guilty to bribery in 2015.

Bearded, masked, shackled and wearing jeans and a dark t-shirt, Maggio was escorted Wednesday by federal marshals from a holding cell inside the courthouse into the courtroom.

"Hey guys," Maggio said affably as he walked past defense attorneys Blake Hendrix and Annie Depper and assistant U.S. attorneys Julie Peters and Patrick Harris.

"Do we have to have the handcuffs?" Chief U.S. District Judge D. Price Marshall Jr. asked Maggio's escorts, who then removed the handcuffs.

"I know I can depend on you to act right," Marshall said to Maggio.

Under Peters' questioning, Maggio walked jurors through his friendships with Baker and Arkansas Supreme Court Justice Rhonda Wood, and through the steps that resulted in Maggio's ruling to reduce the $5.2 million wrongful death award against Greenbrier Nursing and Rehabilitation Center to $1 million in July 2013.

"On July 10, 2013," Peters asked, "did you sign an order remitting the verdict from $5.2 million to $1 million?"

"Yes ma'am," Maggio replied. "From $5.2 million to $1 million, yes ma'am."

"Is it a big deal to remit a verdict?" Peters asked.

"At the state level, yes ma'am," Maggio said. "It's not usual, I'll say that."

"Had you ever remitted a verdict before?"

"No ma'am," Maggio replied, drawing out his answer.

Although Maggio said he had a legal basis to remit the verdict, he said other options were also available to the family of Martha Bull and to Morton to appeal the verdict or the remittitur order.

"You said you thought there was a legal basis to remit the verdict," Peters said. "Was that the only reason?"

"No ma'am," Maggio said. "I did plead guilty, I took a bribe for reducing it, yes ma'am."

Asked to elaborate on the nature of the bribe, Maggio said, "potential campaign donations."

Prosecutors have said Baker received a FedEx package July 9, 2013, at his Conway home containing $228,000 in contributions from Morton, $30,000 of which was intended for Maggio in the form of 10 $3,000 checks made out to each of 10 political action committees controlled by Baker.

Peters asked if Maggio and Baker discussed the Bull case or Morton between May 16, 2013, when the verdict was rendered, and July 10, 2013, when Maggio ordered the award reduced.

"I think he sent me a text or two about it," Maggio said. "We did have a couple of communications about Morton."

Regarding the communications about Morton, Maggio said Baker sent him messages telling him that Morton's support was secure and that Morton was paying attention to the Bull case.

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