The Democrat-Gazette’s Debra Hale-Shelton continues to dig up new information on the suspicious campaign finance activity that funneled money into the now-aborted Court of Appeals campaign of Judge Mike Maggio of Conway. The latest is an ethics complaint by a family on the wrong side of a court ruling by Maggio in a nursing home negligence case. But the nursing home-judicial election nexus doesn’t end there.
It was filed by Thomas Buchanan, a lawyer for family members of a woman who died in a Greenbrier nursing home after staff failed to receive a doctor’s order for hospital care. July 8, 2013, the day Maggio held a hearing on reducing a jury’s verdict of $5.2 million, Fort Smith nursing home owner Michael Morton put $3,000 into each of seven PACs created by Chris Stewart, a Little Rock lawyer. Morton told the D-G the money was solicited by Linda Flanagin, an employee of a consulting firm created by former Sen. Gilbert Baker, also a publicly paid lobbyist for UCA. The PACs ultimately gave money to Maggio’s campaign. On July 11, Maggio reduced the $5.2 million to $1 million in damages.
Stewart won’t say who he was working for in creating the PACs. They aren’t the only PACs he created. His PACs have also contributed to Republican legislative candidates Bruce Holland, and Stacy Hurst. Baker’s consulting firm, which he no longer heads, and Flanagin have been active in these and other campaigns. Morton also has contributed in other ways in a number of judicial races in Faulkner County, as, coincidentally, has Baker. Morton’s money has flowed heavily to three candidates for Arkansas Supreme Court — Rhonda Wood, Karen Baker and Robin Wynne — and also to several candidates for Faulkner County judgeships, particularly Troy Braswell and Doralee Chandler.
Baker has worked for years in the interest of “tort reform” — or limits on damage cases — including through election of sympathetic judicial candidates. He also was a $60,000-a-year employee while a senator of the Faith and Freedom Coalition, established by Religious Right political operative Ralph Reed, to elect Republican legislative candidates.
Since the Arkansas Blog began writing about these issues, UCA President Tom Courtway has had a change of heart about Baker’s activities. After first defending him, Courtway has now told Baker to cease fund-raising activities and also to remove himself from leadership of the private consulting firm, which reportedly has done work in state regulatory areas, though Baker won’t talk about it and Flanagin has been unreachable.
The Arkansas Blog first reported Maggio’s ruling on the nursing home case. I begin reporting the flood of nursing home money to judicial candidates in early February. Blue Hog Report blew the story open with his report on the creation of dark money PACs and the coincidental timing. The D-G’s Hale-Shelton has begun knotting the Faulkner County roots of this scandal tight with Morton’s identification of Baker’s aide Flanagin as intermediary for the suspicious PACs.
Reminder: this ethics complaint isn’t all the funny money activity. Chris Stewart also created the Red Arkansas PAC, also funded by $3,000 in Morton money, which has given money to a Republican legislative candidate, David Sanders. And Morton was a $5,000 contributor to the GoEddieJoe PAC, a creation of Sen. Eddie Joe Williams. His beneficiaries have included others favored by the Stewart PACs and/or Baker — Bruce Holland, Trent Eilts and Rhonda Wood.
The nursing home money keeps stacking up in Conway, particularly. Doralee Chandler, a circuit judge candidate reported on her first contribution report that $12,000 of her $12,900 came from Morton or his nursing homes. She’s filed another report with $8,000 more from Morton companies. So far, $20,000 of the $25,000 she’s raised has come from Morton. Chandler is running against Judge H.G. Foster, in case you’d like to find someone not wholly supported by the nursing home industry.