Lost in the shuffle of reporting about UCA lobbyist Gilbert Baker’s involvement in political races this year — from Republican legislative candidates to pro-business judicial candidates — is his long history as someone who’s profited from dark-money political activities. It began while he was a legislator in the employ of an ultra-conservative national organization.
A review of tax filings show connections between Baker’s past activities and current controversies.
According to records on file with the IRS, Baker was the leader when the Arkansas branch of the Faith and Freedom Coalition was established in 2010 with private contributions from unidentified sources. He was paid $10,000 that year as executive director. Wikipedia provides a summary of the Faith and Freedom Coalition, with some emphasis supplied:
The Faith and Freedom Coalition is an American ecumenical, social conservative 501(c)(4) non-profit organization with an avowed commitment to “educating, equipping, and mobilizing people of faith and like-minded individuals to be effective citizens.” It promotes the pro-life cause, opposes same-sex marriage, supports limited government, lower taxes, and education reform, works to help “the poor, the needy, and those who have been left behind”, supports the free market, and supports a strong national defense including backing for Israel. The organization was founded in 2009 by Christian Coalition founder Ralph E. Reed, Jr., who described it as “a 21st century version of the Christian Coalition”. Reed designed the coalition as a bridge between the Tea Party movement and evangelical voters.
In 2011, the Arkansas affiliate raked in $235,000 (again the sources did not have to be disclosed) and that year Baker, still an Arkansas senator, was paid $59,000. He had new company on the board of the organization including, as secretary, Religious Right Republican lawyer Chris Stewart.
Christ Stewart has become famous in recent days as organizer of seven PACs that coincidentally received initial funding on July 8, 2013, the very day Judge Mike Maggio held a hearing on reducing a $5 million verdict against a Fort Smith nursing home owned by Michael Morton. Morton was the sole financial contributor to the PACs. Four days after the hearing, Maggio reduced the verdict against Morton’s nursing home by $4 million. The PACs’ money went primarily to Maggio later in 2013, when judicial candidates could legally begin receiving campaign contributions.
I’ve reported that Baker’s tentacles spread deeply into Republican legislative races and a number of judicial races, particularly in Faulkner County. Morton has been the single biggest contributor to races for Supreme Court by Rhonda Wood and Karen Baker and for circuit judge by Doralee Chandler. Baker told me he was working to help these udicial candidates from his hometown of Conway and he’s been reported in their company at Republican political events. Their affinity to the Republican Party has been a selling point, according to people who’ve been in attendance.
The coincidences pile up of a Baker nexus.
Take tthose Chris Stewart-created PACs: Officers, according to the Log Cabin Democrat, include Don Thomas and Ancil Lea. Coincidentally, Don Thomas is listed on tax documents as treasurer of the Arkansas Faith and Freedom Coalition in 2012, the big Republican campaign year. Lea was treasurer of the organization in 2011.
In 2012, Baker’s pay from Ralph Reed’s organization jumped slightly, to $59,576. His Faith and Freedom group raked in another $256,000 that year. And it spent $288,000, in addition to Baker’s pay and support costs, mostly on advertising to elect Republican candidates to the Arkansas legislature.
There were some executive changes at the agency in 2012. Stewart remained secretary. Bruce Campbell, chief of staff to Mark Darr and now the $75,000-a-year chief of staff to nobody, was added to the board. Donnie Copeland, a Republican Pentecostal preacher who ran for lieutenant governor as a Republican in 2010, became director, though pay was reported only to Baker.
The organization has an organizing principle stated on its tax form:
Educating and informing registered voters of their social responsibility to exercise their right to vote.
In Baker’s defense, it should be noted that his former patron Ralph Reed has been an outspoken critic of Obamacare. And Reed is still working for a re-establishment of Religious Right dominance in the political arena. But Baker more than doubled his Ralph Reed organization paycheck to $132,000 when Tom Courtway hired him to lobby for the University of Central Arkasas. It was a unifying mission of higher education in Arkansas to work in 2013 for the “private option” — an Arkansas legislative version of Obamacare tailored to profit insurance companies. Without passage, colleges faced big budget cuts.
The Arkansas Faith and Freedom Coalition website on one page still lists Baker as chairman, but names Donnie Copeland as interim director on another page. Read all about its work.
What remains to be brought out of the shadows is LRM Consulting, the lobbying and governmental affairs firm established by Baker with legal assistance from, again, Chris Stewart. Its employees have included Linda Flanagin of Conway, who, according to account to the Democrat-Gazette by Michael Morton, was the point person who suggested that Morton make contributions to the PACs created by Chris Stewart. Baker has disclaimed active involvement in LRM, established in December 2012, since going to work for UCA a month later. But he has also said he hired Flanagin. Baker has declined to discuss his consulting work.