Following a hearing before a special judge on Wednesday, a corruption lawsuit filed against a Greenbrier nursing home owner and former state Sen. Gilbert Baker will remain open.
The corruption suit was initially filed in November 2014 against Baker, former Circuit Judge Michael Maggio and nursing home owner Michael Morton. The civil suit filed in Faulkner County Circuit Court has not seen a great deal of movement since 2016. However, following a hearing before Judge David Laser at 10 a.m. Wednesday, the case has been brought back to life.
Laser was appointed as a special judge in the corruption suit after all 20th Judicial District circuit judge recused from the case.
Laser previously said he would not rule on a motion for summary judgment filed on behalf of the defendants in 2016 pending the results of Maggio's bribery case and his appeal.
Now that the former circuit judge, who pleaded guilty to a federal bribery charge in 2015, has exhausted the appeal process, Laser moved forward with ruling against the request.
The special judge said there were "genuine issues of material fact" in the defense's arguments, and struck down the request for summary judgement during Wednesday's hearing.
The corruption suit was filed after Martha Bull’s family initially filed a negligence suit after Bull died in Morton’s Greenbrier nursing home in 2008. The corruption suit claims the $5.2-million judgment was reduced in exchange for donations for Maggio’s campaign for a seat in the Arkansas Court of Appeals.
While the former circuit judge’s sentence was ultimately upheld, he has since been moved to an undisclosed location in the wake of a federal indictment that was filed earlier this month against Gilbert.
Federal charges against Gilbert stem from the same case, according to his indictment. The former state senator pleaded not guilty to federal charges of conspiracy, bribery and wire fraud in the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Arkansas on Thursday.
The indictment against Baker was filed in the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Arkansas on Jan. 10. The investigation against the former senator reveals he, Maggio, who was a circuit judge for the 20th Judicial District, and at least one other person schemed together from May 2013 to June 2014.
Following the hearing in circuit court Wednesday, attorneys representing Bull's family said they were "certainly pleased that Judge Laser followed the law."
Laser granted in part the plaintiffs' request for judicial notice.
Attorney Thomas Buchanan previously argued that Maggio's guilty plea and statements he made during his plea "are adjudicative facts that cannot be disputed. Likewise, Maggio's conviction, as evidence by the Final Criminal Judgment and Commitment order, is an adjudicative fact that should be judicially noticed under Rule 201."
Following arguments from both parties, Laser said the court would accept the Maggio's guilty plea and conviction as fact throughout the corruption suit. However, he did not OK the plaintiffs' request to recognize the content of Maggio's plea agreement.
Buchanan told the Log Cabin Democrat that it was "extremely significant" that Laser denied the defendants' request to use testimony and opinions from retired District Judge James M. Moody Sr. as evidence in the case.
The defendants’ attorneys claim Moody’s “expert testimony” should be admitted as evidence because “it will be helpful to the jurors who will likely have no knowledge or experience with excessive jury verdicts and the standards for considering a motion for remittitur.”
“Judge Moody’s testimony about the procedural aspects of a remittitur, the considerations a judge must take into account in determining whether to grant a remittitur and whether a remittitur of the Bull verdict was proper are all matters that will be helpful to the jury in determining the factual question of causation and damages in this case,” an October 2016 response on behalf of Morton reads.
Laser found "there was next to no probative value in the former federal judge's opinion" and that other evidence "substantially outweighed" his potential testimony, Buchanan said.
While no follow-up court date has yet been set in the matter, attorney's representing Bull's family said they are glad to see the case has been brought back to life.
The Log Cabin reached out to attorneys representing Morton and Gilbert for comment regarding the matter but did not receive a response by press time Friday.