The state Ethics Commission held a closed-door hearing today on its staff investigation of an ethics complaint against Circuit Judge Mike Maggio over campaign contributions he’d received from PACs financed by nursing home owner Michael Morton days before a favorable ruling in Maggio’s court in a nursing home damage case.
By its failure to announce a vote dismissing the action, the Commission indicated it would proceed to the final stage of determining potential violations by the Maggio campaign.
Indications are that the pending potential violations are relatively minor and do not bear on the question of whether Maggio was improperly influenced by Morton’s contributions to a number of PACs on July 8, three days before Maggio reduced a nursing home verdict by $4.2 million, to $1 million. Thomas Buchanan, an attorney for the family of a woman who died in a Greenbrier nursing home and sued over it, represented the family in the closed hearing.
Buchanan said documents he reviewed indicated the key issues were whether some of the PACs had made contributions in excess of $2,000 during the campaign cycle and whether the PACs had been properly registered when it made the contributions. Several of the PACs, created by Little Rock lawyer Chris Stewart, weren’t registered with the secretary of state until several weeks after contributions were made.
According to Buchanan, Maggio and his attorney Lauren Hamilton indicated that “mathematical errors” may have been made in the case of three contributions on account of the complexity of rules pertaining to judicial elections. Judges run in May, but runoffs don’t come until November, if required. Maggio was runnning for Court of Appeals but dropped out after a controversy developed over his comments on an LSU fan website and the campaign contributions.
Buchanan said Maggio told the Commission he had not acted with any ill intent and didn’t know who gave his campaign money. He said he had two people looking at the money he received, an apparent reference to campaign treasurer Luke Pruett and Maggio’s girlfriend Dawn Rivers, who also served as his campaign spokesman on occasion. The investigative file indicated Rivers received contributions and relayed information to Pruett, Buchanan said.
According to Buchanan, Maggio said, “I apologize for the clerical error.”
Campaign reports on file show that the Maggio campaign refunded $250 in excess contributions to each of three PACs when those errors were discovered, his attorney, Lauren Hamilton said. Furthemore, reports show that Maggio has refunded all money received from the PACs, legally or otherwise.
Graham Sloan, Ethics Commission director, told participants afterward that the parties would know if the complaint had been dismissed and they could “infer” it had not been by absence of that acknowledgment.
Hamilton, Maggio’s attorney, told me later that the matter about prohibited PACs had ibeen dismissed. I’d thought from the outset that the question of an unregistered PAC would be more of a problem for its creator, Chris Stewart, than a candidate. I’ve never heard of an ethics commission case in which a political candidate was required to check on the registration status of a PAC contributor.
Otherwise, Hamilton said she was limited in commenting on the morning’s closed hearing. “… but I can tell you that the preliminary hearing went well and there was a dismissal of any complaint regarding taking money from a ‘prohibited political action committee.’ Once the other matter is resolved and final action is taken whether through settlement or through trial, it is my understanding that the report of the Commission will become public record. I am not able to speak to the contents of that record at this time.”
The Ethics Commission, which only applies civil penalties on ethical matters, has limited authority. It can assess fines and has on occasion referred matters for prosecutorial review. But, even then, criminal violation of ethics statutes are only misdemeanors. I can’t recall a prosecution for an excess contribution. The commission recently fined a Republican legislative candidate for taking $5,000 from a campaign contributor, $1,000 more than allowed for contributions to a primary and general election campaign.
Reviews of the Maggio matter continue, however, before the state Judicial Discipline and Disability Commission. The Arkansas Supreme Court has prohibited from hearing cases (he’s still paid), likely for the remainder of his term, which ends December 31. Federal authorities are also reviewing the matter, sources have told me.
The feds will likely have a few interesting things to pursue, if they don’t already know them, from the review of campaign contributions. It should be easy to show that among the recipients of Morton nursing home money was a PAC created by lobbyist Bruce Hawkins
Morton sent money to lobbyist Bruce Hawkins from his nursing home for a PAC Hawkins created that sent money to Maggio and others. Former Sen. Gilbert Baker, then a lobbyist for UCA and owner of a private government consulting firm, connected Hawkins with Morton. Baker lost his job at UCA after his finagling in the Maggio and other judicial and legislative races surfaced. An employee of Baker’s has told the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette that she also approached Morton about contributing money to Maggio. Morton contributed tens of thousands of dollars to Maggio and other judicial candidates in Baker’s home base of Faulkner County.