LITTLE ROCK, Ark. — A former Arkansas lawmaker has been charged with conspiracy in an alleged bribery scheme with an ex-judge who admitted to lowering a jury's award in a negligence lawsuit in exchange for campaign contributions.
A federal indictment unsealed Friday shows former state Sen. Gilbert Baker was also charged with bribery and wire fraud in connection to the scheme involving former Judge Michael Maggio. Maggio admitted in 2015 to accepting campaign donations from a nursing home company owner, then reducing a judgment against that company from $5.2 million to $1 million.
The indictment alleges Baker conspired with Maggio to direct the owner's contributions to the judge. The contributions were funneled to Maggio through eight political action committees that Baker had an attorney set up.
Baker is a former Arkansas Republican Party chairman who unsuccessfully ran for the GOP nomination for a U.S. Senate seat in 2010. Baker's attorneys said he never asked Maggio, the nursing home company owner or anyone else to do anything improper or illegal, and that no one asked him to do anything improper or illegal.
"All campaign contributions in 2013 were handled lawfully and were transparently reported in public records," attorneys Richard Watts and Bud Cummins said in a statement. "After over five years of investigation Mr. Baker is confident that the truth will finally be made known."
Maggio accepted the contributions during a bid for the state Court of Appeals that he abandoned three months before the election. Baker, who was a fundraiser for Maggio's bid, told the judge over the summer that the nursing home owner "was watching the civil lawsuit and would appreciate Maggio making a favorable decision," according to the indictment.
The indictment names the owner only as "Individual A," though he's previously been identified as Michael Morton. Morton has not been charged in the case and a spokesman denied he sought anything in exchange for his contributions.
"Mr. Morton maintains that while he made campaign contributions to numerous candidates for the 2014 election, he never asked for anything in return from any candidate," Matt DeCample, a spokesman for Morton, said in a statement. "He never discussed reducing a jury verdict in any case with anybody. Morton discussed this at length with the U.S. Attorney's Office in 2014 and it remains the truth today."
The indictment is the latest in ongoing federal corruption cases that have involved Arkansas lawmakers and lobbyists and have compelled legislative leaders to call cleaning up the Capitol's reputation as one of their top priorities this session.
The probes prompted the Senate to overhaul its ethics rules last year. Earlier Friday, legislative leaders and the governor told reporters they expected changes to the state's ethics laws including an increase in fines for some violations.
"It's culminated now, and it has to stop," incoming Senate President Jim Hendren said.