Columns » Max Brantley

What Maggio has wrought

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Mike Maggio's guilty plea to a federal bribery charge last week resonates beyond the destruction of his own life.

Maggio, once a circuit judge running for Court of Appeals, admits he reduced a $5.2 million verdict against a nursing home owned by Michael Morton of Fort Smith to $1 million in return for campaign support from Morton arranged by Gilbert Baker, the former Republican senator, lobbyist and GOP campaign bundler.

Morton and Baker have not been charged. But the case adds to the stench of corporate influence in judicial races. The nursing home lobby has spent hundreds of thousands of dollars to support the campaigns of five current members of the seven-member Arkansas Supreme Court. The biggest beneficiaries: Courtney Goodson, who is aiming for chief justice, and Rhonda Wood, a new justice who was among a phalanx of judicial candidates favored by Morton in Baker's home of Faulkner County. The connection will raise questions about impartiality whenever a nursing home or tort case of any sort comes before these judges.

The scandal — along with Democratic packing of a key Senate committee — may defeat the Arkansas State Chamber of Commerce's push for "tort reform" this legislative session. Maggio's bribery and the documented efforts to influence judicial elections create a public relations disaster in pushing ahead with laws to make it still harder to sue nursing homes and win meaningful judgments for damages to the infirm.

The Maggio case might also discourage another movement. New Amendment 94, whose many parts included a ban on corporate campaign contributions, hits Michael Morton and others where they live politically. Though individuals are limited to $2,000 contributions to campaigns, Morton gave the maximum through multiple corporate entities. Half of Rhonda Wood's initial campaign report came from nursing home empires, almost $50,000 from Morton.

That's no longer legal. A constitutional amendment to restore corporate contributions is a non-starter. A lawsuit is still possible. But it better go to federal court. With five Arkansas justices sitting as beneficiaries of multiple contributions from a single corporate player, an appearance before them would be unsavory indeed. Sadly, the U.S. Supreme Court's decision in the Citizens United case may trump all.

But thanks to Mike Maggio, Michael Morton and Gilbert Baker, we now have concrete evidence of where unfettered corporate influence can lead. A civil lawsuit by the family of the woman left to die without hospital treatment in a Michael Morton nursing home may yet get another good jury and an honest judge.

The Maggio scandal was not a happy occasion for the Republican Party, otherwise basking in the glow of a smashing takeover of Arkansas government.

The Democrats had the crooked treasurer, Martha Shoffner, and expense account cheat Sen. Paul Bookout. The Republicans had expense account cheat Lt. Gov. Mark Darr. But these were petty criminals compared with those who buy and sell the judicial branch of government.

Gilbert Baker has been on this path of judicial "reform" — as a paid lobbyist in the legislature — for years. This could have been his finest year, with winners for whom he bundled money from the circuit courts to the Court of Appeals to the state Supreme Court. Maggio's implosion cost Maggio's expected seat.

The Baker/Morton candidates sent messages that they were Republicans. They were "conservative." They had "family values." They wouldn't "legislate from the bench." Wood used a Republican, Mike Huckabee, to make robocalls. They made the rounds of Republican committee meetings to drum up support.

Baker and Morton and allies also poured money into key legislative races to defeat Democrats to cement Republican control of the legislature. Morton's money went, among others, to the PAC of Sen. Eddie Joe Williams (R-Cabot), the sponsor of a tort reform amendment and a backer of like-minded legislative candidates.

The Maggio case is a Republican scandal. GOP bagman Gilbert Baker is at the root of it. The question is whether anyone pays attention.

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