story by Ryan Saylor
Attorneys for the family of a Faulkner County woman who died in April 2008 due to what the family alleged was neglect and negligence have added even more fuel to the fire in the case of Circuit Judge Mike Maggio – fuel that could mean trouble for Fort Smith businessman Michael Morton.
Maggio dropped out of a race for the Arkansas Court of Appeals following revelations by left-leaning blog Blue Hog Report about Maggio's anonymous postings to a LSU sports site. The postings included what many considered racist and homophobic remarks, as well as confidential information about court cases, including a Faulkner County adoption by actress Charlize Theron.
Following the admission by Maggio that he made the postings online came another report from Blue Hog Report's Matt Campbell, an attorney with Pinnacle Law Firm in Little Rock, that Maggio had dropped the dollar value of a penalty stemming from a neglect and negligence lawsuit filed against Michael Morton, whose Fort Smith-based Central Arkansas Nursing Center owns Greenbrier Care Center. The jury ruled in favor of the family of Martha Bull and awarded the woman's estate $5.2 million on June 6, 2013.
"On July 8, 2013, Judge Maggio granted Greenbrier Care Center’s motion for a remittitur hearing, because he found that the $5.2M award against the nursing home “shock[ed] the conscience of the court," Campbell wrote, reporting that the judge ultimately lowered the award to $1 million.
He noted that on the same day Maggio granted the remittitur hearing, seven political action committees (PACs) were formed and all received donations of $3,000 from Morton or companies owned by Morton. All the PACs went on to make donations to Maggio's Court of Appeals campaign.
It was the latest revelations by Campbell that compelled Bull's family to instruct their attorneys to file a complaint with the Arkansas Judicial Discipline and Disability Commission on Thursday.
"Based on reports that came out in the Blue Hog Report and also came out in the Log Cabin Democrat and later the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, my clients were extremely concerned about donations to seven PACs with Mike Maggio being the primary beneficiary of those PACs," said attorney Tom Buchanan, who along with attorney Brannon Sloan of Dodds, Kidd and Ryan Law Firm in Little Rock, is representing the family.
Buchanan, in a Monday interview with The City Wire, explained that the complaint was filed because the law stating that candidates for judicial positions are not allowed to fundrais more than 180 days before a judicial election.
"The judicial is May 20," he explained. "If you subtract 180 days, that's November or December. The obvious questions my clients have is why did Mike Morton, who my clients had a verdict (against), write these checks on the same day that the judge reduced the verdict?"
Asked whether the family of Bullock would pursue criminal charges against either Maggio or Morton regarding the allegations reported by the Blue Hog Report, Buchanan said it is a possibility.
"I'm not going to comment on what my clients have told me, but I've been authorized by the family to investigate this and try to find out answers for them," he said. "Everything's on the table at this point in terms of options and we don't even know what all of our options are. We're still in the process of figure that out and making the determination."
An attempt to contact Morton at his Fort Smith office was unsuccessful, with a female employee stating he was out of town and likely would not return any media inquiries about the case.
Executive Director David Sachar of the JDDC confirmed an investigation into the issue was opened, though he said in a statement that he could not discuss details.
"The Judicial Discipline & Disability Commission is aware of the general allegations concerning campaign contributions to Circuit Judge Mike Maggio’s race for the Court of Appeals. Under Rule 7C(3) I can confirm that there is an on-going investigation into this matter by this agency. Judge Maggio will have full due process rights during our investigation. Procedural rules of the Judicial Discipline & Disability Commission will determine the timing of the events in the case, including when more information is released. This office does not anticipate issuing further public statement until the case concludes. Possible conclusions include dismissal, agreed resolution or public charges."
Should public charges be filed, Sachar said "it would proceed to trial" and would be similar to a civil matter, versus a criminal matter.