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Illness of prosecutor rattles bribery trial

But judge reports negative virus test; creator of 8 PACs testifies on Baker’s role by Dale Ellis | July 30, 2021 at 7:07 a.m.
Former state Sen. Gilbert Baker is shown speaking to reporters in this file photo.

The bribery trial of former state Sen. Gilbert Baker was nearly upended Thursday for a second time related to a covid-19 scare after Assistant U.S. Attorney Patrick Harris was reported to have taken ill with a fever and other symptoms after leaving court Wednesday.

Chief U.S. District Judge D. Price Marshall Jr. announced that Assistant U.S. Attorney John Ray White had stepped in to help Assistant U.S. Attorney Julie Peters in Harris' absence. Marshall also announced that court will be recessed today to give White time to get caught up on the case.

The judge told jurors that arrangements were being made for coronavirus tests for all courtroom participants in the event Harris were to test positive.

But just before lunchtime Thursday, Marshall announced that he had received an update from Harris regarding the results of a rapid test.

I've got good news," he said. "Mr. Harris is just sick. We will stand down on the tests we were arranging and breathe a sigh of relief."

"Does that mean he's coming back?" joked Blake Hendrix, who along with Annie Depper makes up Baker's defense team.

"That's what Mr. White wants to know," Marshall replied, laughing.

Baker is accused of bribing former Faulkner County Circuit Judge Mike Maggio to reduce a $5.2 million jury award against Greenbrier Nursing and Rehabilitation Center in 2013 in a lawsuit filed by the family of Martha Bull. Bull died two weeks after being admitted for 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.

After the completion of Maggio's testimony Thursday morning, Chris Stewart, a Little Rock attorney active in Arkansas politics, testified to the creation of eight political action committees Baker hired him to set up, saying those PACs were formed solely for the purpose of funneling money to Maggio's campaign. He said that despite the fact that he was listed as an officer of all the PACs and Baker was not, Baker was the one who called the shots, naming the PACs, naming the officers, and telling Stewart when to write checks, for whom and for how much.

He said that when publicity began mounting after Maggio's reduction of the Bull award, he gathered up his documents and went to the FBI after being granted immunity for his information and testimony.

Stewart also testified that Baker had approached him about making straw donations -- where a person illegally uses another person's money to make political donations -- offering to write Stewart a check in exchange for $6,000 in campaign donations for Maggio in $2,000 amounts attributed to his law firm, himself and his wife. At that time, state law limited political contributions to $2,000 per person or business in a given election cycle.

Stewart said he was later given a check for $8,000.

On cross-examination, Depper produced checks and invoices that showed contributions from several of the PACs started by Baker to a range of candidates, including Gov. Asa Hutchinson, former state representative candidate Stacy Hurst, former state Sens. Bruce Holland and David Sanders, and others.

Depper also produced transcripts of Stewart's testimony before the Arkansas Ethics Commission in which Stewart told Jill Barham, an attorney with the Ethics Commission, that he and Baker had come up with names for the PACs and selected officers for them. She also produced transcripts of his Ethics Commission testimony in which Stewart, asked directly by Barham if the PACs were being started to raise money exclusively for Maggio, told her the first funds raised went to candidates other than Maggio.

Regarding the straw donations Stewart said Baker asked him to give in exchange for a bonus, the attorney's testimony to the Ethics Commission seemed less certain.

"Did he tell you he was going to give you an $8,000 bonus? I want you to consider, or were there specific numbers that were thrown around?" Depper said, reading Barham's questions from the transcript, then quoting Stewart's answer. "I don't recall the exact conversation and I don't think it would be in the words that you stated. It was a matter of fact conversation. I don't recall the exact words but the gist of it was, you know, we're going to give you a bonus."

Further in the transcript, Stewart told Barham that he and Baker had discussed the amount of legal work Stewart was doing that he had not been paid for and he told her that Baker had told him that he would be given a bonus.

Depper pointed out that Stewart told Barham that the first donations had gone to Sanders, Hutchinson, state Auditor Andrea Lea, "and you go on and on about some other candidates, do you see that?"

"I do," Stewart replied.

After Peters complained that Depper was not reading Stewart's whole statement, Depper continued on.

"Further on in that statement you talk about the other campaigns being contributed to," Depper said, then reading from the transcript, "'so that was who they were going to first and then it was around December I first heard Maggio's name and then we started writing a whole bunch of checks to Judge Maggio.' You see that?"

"Yes," Stewart said.

"You did not tell Ms. Barham at that time the PACs were earmarked for Judge Maggio, is that correct?"

"Not in that statement," Stewart replied.

After Stewart, jurors heard from Don Thomas and Cheryl Oliger. At the time of the indictment, Thomas, 78, was an insurance executive in Conway and Oliger was his office manager. Both testified that they were named to PACs as officers without their knowledge.

Thomas walked into the courtroom slowly, and, using a cane, made his way to the witness stand.

"I didn't even know he was putting me on a PAC," Thomas testified, but said that after he found out he never contacted Baker about it.

"Do you remember telling the FBI that you talked to Gilbert Baker about it afterward?" asked Peters.

"I don't remember me and the FBI talking," Thomas said.

"You, and the FBI?" asked Peters, sounding confused.

"The witness is having trouble hearing you," Marshall told Peters, then to Thomas, "Ms. Peters is asking about your talk with the FBI. Are you on the right page now?"

"Actually," Thomas then said, "the prosecuting attorney and the FBI came out. The prosecuting attorney did all the talking. The FBI didn't say a word."

As Peters walked back to confer with White, Thomas spoke up, "Can I go now?" as the courtroom broke up with laughter.

"Not yet," said Marshall. "Almost."

"I hate it when attorneys whisper to each other," Thomas said, as the courtroom convulsed once again.

"I'm not going to comment on that," Marshall said.

"What they don't know is I can read lips," Thomas said, provoking yet another round of laughter, which broke out anew as Peters told Marshall, "Your Honor, I have nothing further."

"Be careful Mr. Hendrix," Marshall quipped as Hendrix approached the lectern.

"Can I go now?" Thomas asked, provoking more laughter.

Hendrix showed Thomas a document from the Arkansas Committee for Economic Growth that named Thomas as an officer.

"There where it says Don Thomas," Thomas said, flatly, "that's not my signature."

Thomas said he had heard of Michael Morton but had never met him.

"All I've heard about him is what other people say," he said.

Thomas said that although he and Baker had offices next to each other for a time, he never saw Morton at Baker's office.

Hendrix asked if it was possible Baker may have asked him to serve on a PAC but Thomas had forgotten.

"Gilbert and I never, ever really talked about a PAC and I did not give my permission for him to put me on a PAC," he said. "Is that clear or not?"

"That is very clear," Hendrix replied. "Had he come to you and asked if he could put your name on a PAC you'd have given him permission, wouldn't you?... It would have been fine if he'd asked you?"

"Probably," Thomas replied.

After being excused, Thomas raised a thumbs-up, exclaiming, "Yay, I'm going home."

As he exited the courtroom he could be heard asking a court deputy, "Who are they calling next?"

Oliger, who spent less than 15 minutes on the witness stand, testified that she had never volunteered to serve on a PAC but that in 2008 she had agreed to work phones for Baker's 2008 Senate campaign.

"Don asked me to," she said. "I didn't like it so I went home. I don't like to bother people on the phone."

After learning that she had been named as an officer to one of the PACs Baker set up, Oliger said she at first didn't know what was going on.

"I had to research it," she said. "I didn't even know what a PAC was."

Asked if she had approved political contributions from the PAC to Maggio and Holland, Oliger said no.

"I don't even know who Bruce Holland is," she said.

As the prosecution's case continues on Monday, Peters said she expects to call as many as 10 more witnesses, including Tom Courtway, former president of the University of Central Arkansas, for whom Baker worked at the time he was indicted. Peters said the government likely will wrap up its case by Tuesday, at which time Baker's attorneys will begin presenting his defense.

Hendrix told Marshall that possible defense witnesses include Hurst, Maggio's wife Dawn, Republican party political operative Clint Reed, former U.S. Attorney Cody Hiland, state Sen. Jimmy Hickey, Lea, and others.

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