Baker deflects Maggio lawsuit talk, discusses UCA leave

Originally published: January 15, 2015 in the Log Cabin Democrat | Link to article

Former state Sen. Gilbert Baker, during an interview with the Log Cabin Democrat on Thursday, addressed his leave of absence from the University of Central Arkansas and deflected direct questions on a recent lawsuit in which he is named a defendant.

Baker, along with nursing home owner Michael Morton, of Fort Smith, and former Faulkner County Circuit Court Judge Mike Maggio, are named as defendants in the lawsuit involving the influence of campaign contributions in a negligence case ruling.

The lawsuit, filed Nov. 18, 2014, in Faulkner County Circuit Court, alleges that Maggio reduced Morton’s sentencing from $5.2 million to $1 million, which resulted from the influence of campaign contributions from Morton toward Maggio’s Arkansas Court of Appeals campaign.

In scheduling the interview with the Log Cabin, Baker initially agreed to provide a statement from his attorney, Richard Watts, and hear questions about his leave, as well as the Maggio lawsuit.

On Thursday, Baker declined to comment on the Maggio lawsuit and his involvement in campaign funding, directing questions to Watts.

The statement from Baker’s attorney reads in part: “Gilbert Baker’s passion, has been and continues to be, supporting and helping conservative-minded candidates and related causes. It was never his intention that any contribution would be seen as an attempt to influence Judge Maggio or any other candidate for whom he has ever raised money.”

Watts continues, “Mr. Baker was saddened to read that Judge Maggio, whom he considers to be a friend, somehow misinterpreted legitimate support for his judicial campaign.”

Additionally, the Log Cabin’s questions would have related to clarifications surrounding his involvement in PAC donations, an objection to speak about communications Baker had with Maggio and whether he remains free from an FBI investigation himself.

“My attorneys just believe it’s inappropriate right now to discuss matters relating to controversy, but I do welcome the opportunity to talk about my leave from the university on unpaid leave,” he said.

Repeated attempts to address the Maggio lawsuit and guilty plea were made throughout the interview.

 

BAKER’S STATUS AT UCA

Baker is on unpaid leave during the spring semester, after spending fall 2014 teaching two UCA courses of music appreciation.

As a nine-month faculty member with the title of assistant professor, Baker’s salary is $50,000.

His experience as a faculty member at UCA goes back to 1979. He was hired in late 2012 to serve as executive assistant to the president at a salary of $132,000 but resigned last year in light of the controversy. As part of his resignation, Baker returned to UCA a week later as a tenured faculty member.

Baker’s spring leave request was made Dec. 3, 2014, to UCA Music Department Chair Paige Rose, prior to recent developments in the Maggio lawsuit.

According to Open UCA expenditure reports, Baker’s last form of compensation was Dec. 23, 2014, in the amount of $2,833.33.

“After teaching those classes for a semester, I felt it was good to back away from the classes for a while to pursue some opportunities I have in the areas of research, relating to online instruction, and then, also some areas of funding for the arts – both government funding and then private funding,” he said.

Baker added “there will never be enough government funding” and that he has considered writing a book to tie in the arts, government funding and politics.

He has plans to return to UCA in the fall, saying he routinely reviews his employment at the university.

“I try to, these days, take one day at a time,” Baker said, affirming his tenure status.

At a UCA Faculty Senate meeting Tuesday, senate president Don B. Bradley III spoke on Baker’s employment at the university. He pointed to discussions in the Provost’s office.

“With Gilbert Baker, we’re monitoring that situation,” Bradley said, telling senators from the College of Fine Arts and Communication to “keep us informed about what’s happening there.”

He added that no decisions have been made regarding his status in the music department and that the university is “keeping a close pulse” on how developments may affect his tenure status.

Provost Steve Runge, sitting to the left of Bradley at the meeting, asserted that Baker’s unpaid leave was approved in advance of any recent developments.

Baker said he did not have a direct comment on the monitoring, adding that he is unaware of any UCA official evaluating his employment at the university.

“I’m not even aware of the discussion in the faculty senate, but I served three terms on the faculty senate, really respect faculty members involved,” he said.

During his unpaid leave, Baker said he will find various ways to “pay the bills” – from helping his son with his landscaping business to providing consulting services.

When asked for details on what kind of consulting, Baker said his services could include projects related to economic development and education, though declined to provide specifics, citing his early involvement in the endeavor.

“Per… the faculty handbook, I’m always careful that nothing is in conflict with the university,” he said.

Baker added that he will “play by the rules” during his leave.

 

PENDING LAWSUIT

The lawsuit in which Baker, Maggio and Morton are named as defendants was filed by Rosey Perkins and Rhonda Coppak, individually and as co-administrators of the estate of Martha Bull.

Bull, a nursing home patient at Greenbrier Nursing Home and Rehabilitation Center, died in what was deemed negligence.

Morton and Baker have not been charged with a crime.

On the day of the ruling in 2013, Morton donated money to eight PACs, seven of which gave money to Maggio’s campaign. The donations impacted Maggio’s reduced sentencing in favor of Morton’s nursing home.

In a Faulkner County Circuit Court filing, Lauren Hamilton, Maggio’s attorney cited her belief that judicial immunity was in play to protect her client from the ruling in the Bull case.

Thomas Buchanan, attorney for Perkins and Coppak, said in a circuit court filing Wednesday that Maggio is not protected with judicial immunity.

He called the actions “independent of his [Maggio’s] role as a sitting judge.”

Baker’s name appears through his connection with Political Action Committees (PACs) that were formed with contributions from Morton. He has affirmed his involvement in helping Maggio raise money but denies allegations that PACs in which he helped establish were solely intended to benefit Maggio’s run for appellate court judge.

Morton additionally donated $100,000 to the UCA Foundation, Inc., which was later refunded to Morton.

 

JUDGES’ CONFLICTS OF INTEREST

In a document filed in Faulkner County Circuit Court on Tuesday, five judges recused themselves from the lawsuit – First Division Judge Mike Murphy, Second Division Judge Troy Braswell, Third Division Judge Charles E. Clawson Jr., Fourth Division Judge David Clark and Fifth Division Judge H.G. Foster.

Signatures in the document are dated Jan. 8.

Clawson, Clark and Foster served as judges with Maggio and Murphy served as Conway City Attorney during Maggio’s time as a judge.

Braswell and Clark received contributions from Morton or his businesses during their 2014 campaigns.

 

FURTHER MAGGIO DEVELOPMENTS

Following Maggio’s guilty plea on a federal bribery charge last week in U.S. District Court, the former judge is set to be sentenced July 24 before Judge Brian Miller in Little Rock.

Maggio’s plea could result in a maximum penalty of 10 years in prison, up to three years supervised release and a fine of up to $250,000.

In the plea, Maggio admitted that he was “improperly influenced” in the negligence trial.