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Ex-judge testifies in Baker's bribe trial

Maggio answers change on stand by Dale Ellis | July 29, 2021 at 8:04 a.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 of Conway entered its third day of testimony Wednesday with former Circuit Judge Mike Maggio taking the stand to testify about Baker's role in raising campaign funds that ended up with Maggio in prison and Baker on trial.

Baker is accused of bribing Maggio to reduce a $5.2 million jury award against Greenbrier Nursing and Rehabilitation Center in 2013 in a lawsuit brought by the family of Martha Bull. Bull died two weeks after being admitted to a one-month rehabilitation stint at the center, which is owned by Michael Morton of Fort Smith. Maggio pleaded guilty to bribery in 2015 and was sentenced to 10 years in prison.

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

"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 then said to Maggio.

What followed were more than three hours of rambling and inconsistent testimony from Maggio, punctuated by objections from attorneys and sidebar conferences with Marshall. During his testimony, Maggio seemed to alternate between admitting that he knowingly accepted a bribe and denying any knowledge that a bribe had ever been offered.

Under cross-examination by Hendrix, Maggio claimed to be unable to recollect the details of numerous interviews with federal officials in which he either admitted guilt and implicated others, including Baker, Morton and state Supreme Court Justice Rhonda Wood, or tried to recant.

"I'm sure you'll refresh my memory," was Maggio's repeated response to Hendrix's inquiries regarding the former judge's statements to federal investigators and his testimony before a federal grand jury that led to Baker's indictment.

Under Peters' questioning, Maggio walked jurors through his friendships with Baker and Wood, and through the steps that resulted in Maggio's ruling to reduce the 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 both Bull's family and to Morton, the owner of the nursing facility.

"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 nature of the bribe, Maggio said, "potential campaign donations."

On July 9, 2013, prosecutors said Baker received a FedEx package 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.

"He sent me an email, a text message, saying win, lose or draw, you'll still have Mr. Morton's support," Maggio said. "Another instance it was a communication of, Mr. Morton is paying attention to the case or watching the case, he knows it's a tough decision and he appreciates you making the tough decision."

"What did you think Mr. Baker was telling you there?" Peters asked.

"I think it was implied that Mr. Morton would be happy with what happened," Maggio said. "For a reduced verdict, a remittitur, or anything, he didn't say anything specific about remittiturs. Just any tough decisions, really."

"Anything that would benefit the nursing home?" Peters asked.

"That's reasonable to expect," Maggio replied.

"Did Mr. Baker ever come out and tell you, word for word, that he wanted you to reduce the judgment by $4.2 million in exchange for campaign contributions from Mr. Morton?" asked Peters. "Did he ever say those words?"

"Not those exact words, no, ma'am," Maggio said.

"How then," Peters continued, "did you know what he was asking you to do and what he was offering?"

"I think it was just a combination of linking up a couple of communications," Maggio said, hesitantly, "that I understood he was, ah, offering, that he'd be sure to get money from the nursing home folks, which I took to be coming from Mr. Morton, you know, for a tough decision, the tough decisions."

"For taking some favorable action," said Peters. "For the nursing home."

"Yes, ma'am," Maggio replied.

But on cross-examination by Hendrix, Maggio said when the jury award of $5.2 million was announced, the sheer size of the award was like a shock wave hitting the courthouse.

"I was stunned," Maggio said. "The bailiff was stunned, the courthouse staff was stunned, I think even the plaintiff attorneys were stunned over the size of the award."

Maggio said lawyers for Bull's family had asked for $1 million for negligence and $6 million for other damages.

"It appeared to me that maybe punitive damages had snuck in," Maggio said. "My decision was the plaintiffs had asked for $1 million for damages and $6 million for wrongful death and it not being wrongful death -- the nursing home was not held liable for wrongful death."

For that reason, Maggio said, he decided to cut the award to $1 million, giving the plaintiffs the choice to accept the award, demand a new trial or seek an automatic expedited appeal to the state Supreme Court.

"I thought under the facts of the law, that was the thing to do," he explained.

But when asked if that was his reasoning for reducing the award, Maggio grew cagey, saying the legal reasoning was part, but not all the reasoning behind his decision. Hendrix asked if it had occurred later to Maggio that he may have been subjected to outside manipulation.

"You just told this jury 35 seconds ago, at the time I made it, it was based on all these things," Hendrix said. "Later, I came to the conclusion that maybe I got manipulated into this, right?"

"That's what I stated, yes," Maggio said.

Hendrix walked Maggio through a series of interviews in late 2014 conducted by FBI investigators and Peters that were spread out over a three-month period culminating with Maggio's guilty plea to one count of federal program bribery before U.S. District Judge Brian Miller on Jan. 9, 2015.

"So you plead guilty to one count of federal program bribery and you agree to cooperate with the government, right?" asked Hendrix. "And by cooperation you mean that in exchange for your assistance to the United States government in the prosecution of others, that may result in the government asking to get your sentenced reduced, right?"

"Yes, sir," Maggio responded.

"Because you were facing 10 years, right?" Hendrix continued. "A way to get that sentence down is to cooperate with the government, right?"

"Yes, sir," Maggio answered.

"You are testifying today in hopes the government will go before Judge Miller and he will agree to reduce your 10-year sentence, is that right?" Hendrix asked.

"That is certainly what I hope," came Maggio's reply.

Hendrix then asked about a visit Maggio had at Big Sandy Federal Correctional Institution in Kentucky on March 13, 2019, with John Everett, Morton's attorney.

"That's been 2½ years ago," Maggio said.

"Do you recall telling [Everett] that you did not take a bribe?" he asked. "Do you remember telling him that you would have granted the remittitur whether or not somebody gave you a contribution?"

"Yeah," Maggio replied.

"Do you remember telling Mr. Everett that you do not believe Gilbert Baker tried to bribe you or did anything inappropriate?" Hendrix continued.

"I don't know if I remember that or not," Maggio said. "I may have."

Hendrix noted that from October 2014 to March 2019, Maggio had met with the prosecution team nine times, testified before the federal grand jury that indicted Baker, and met with Everett.

"From October 2014 to Jan. 19, 2016, the substance of your statements to the government was, 'I'm guilty of bribery, I was bribed by Gilbert Baker and Michael Morton,' fair enough?" Hendrix asked. "Then from Feb. 12, 2016 to Dec. 6, 2018, then you're saying, 'I'm innocent and I was not bribed by Michael Morton or Gilbert Baker, right?"

"Yes, sir."

"Then from Dec. 6, 2018, to right now," Hendrix said, "you are back saying 'Gilbert Baker and Michael Morton bribed me.' You've been flip-flopping a lot in this case, right?"

On Feb. 12, 2016, Maggio filed a motion to withdraw his guilty plea, claiming to have been pressured by prosecutors and by his own attorneys to take the deal. Miller denied the motion the next month.

Maggio returns to the stand at 8:30 this morning to conclude his testimony.

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