Recent attention into Circuit Judge Mike Maggio’s campaign contributions is illuminating the new norm in judicial elections over the past several years.
Like a number of judges and judicial candidates on this year’s ballot, Maggio’s campaign disclosure forms have been heavy on contributions for nursing home interests, including nursing homes and corporations under the ownership or control of Fort Smith’s Michael Morton — who can fairly be called an Arkansas nursing home tycoon, though he’s not alone in having a network of nursing homes and related entities under an umbrella corporation, and nor is he alone in investing in judicial candidates through these many business entities, each of which can contribute up to $2,000.
Maggio’s judicial decision last year to reduce a family’s jury award in a negligence case involving one of Morton’s nursing homes from $5.2 to $1 million — a savings of more than $4 million for Morton’s business interests — coupled with continued unprecedented spending by nursing home interests on judicial races has some state commentators, including The Arkansas Times’ Max Brantley and the Blue Hog Report, questioning the growing influence of the nursing home industry in setting the roster of sitting judges at almost all levels of the state judiciary.
Thomas Buchanan, the Little Rock lawyer who represented plaintiffs in the nursing case that went before Maggio, stated in an earlier interview his clients have authorized him to look into possible new litigation after it came to light Maggio had received about $10,000 from political action committees (PACs) funded by business entities linked to the defendant that were created and funded the day Maggio reduced the jury’s award — arguably giving the appearance that there was a relationship between the judge’s treatment of the case’s nursing home defendants and the contributions.
The family of Martha Bull, the subject of the negligence case and who died at Greenbrier Nursing and Rehabilitation Center, said Thursday they have filed a complaint with the Judicial Discipline and Disability Commission regarding the matter.
Money from Morton or corporations linked to him can be found in several local judicial elections.
Little Rock attorney Doralee Chandler, who seeks Circuit Court judgeship in this district, filed a campaign contribution and expenditure report last month that reports $12,000 from Morton and other entities that share his primary operating address.
Deputy prosecutor Troy Braswell, who seeks Maggio’s current seat, has reported $8,000 from Morton or his entities.
Circuit Judge David Clark recently reported $12,000 in nursing industry related contributions from Conway-based Reliance Healthcare Management, headed by Brandon and Bryan Adams.
At the state level, Morton and the nursing home industry are also high contributors to judicial campaigns.
Court of Appeals Judge Robin Wynne has recently reported $7,000 from Morton’s companies and $7,000 from entities under Victoria Healthcare Inc., owned by Joshua and Ken Kilgore.
Associate Justice Karen Baker of the Supreme Court is another recipient of about $18,000 in nursing home industry money that links back to Morton.
Past Circuit Judge Rhonda Wood, of Conway, who now sits on the Court of Appeals and is running unopposed for the Supreme Court, has recently reported more than $60,000 in campaign contributions from entities linked to Reliance Healthcare Management and Morton.
Wood provided comment Thursday, saying, "I received approximately $70,000 in contributions from the medical community. This is less than 50 percent of my $152,000 in contributions. It is not surprising that the medical community has always supported me as I practiced health law, taught health law, teach continuing education courses in this area, and I am married to a physician. As to Michael Morton, he contributed the maximum of $2,000. I have no knowledge of which nursing facilities he has an ownership interest in. My decisions are solely based on law and nothing else."
According to Wood’s most recent campaign finance reports, she has received $38,000 from Morton or his businesses and $24,000 from entities under Reliance Healthcare Management.