John Burris: Premature Judgment

by John Burris ([email protected]) 325 views 

Innocent until accused is not the rule. In an oftentimes heartless political world full of people who love to watch other people fall, it is the rule.

That’s what’s happening in the wake of a guilty plea agreed to last week by former Judge Mike Maggio. He says he accepted a bribe in the form of a campaign contribution to lower a verdict against a nursing home owned by wealthy political donor Michael Morton. He says former state senator Gilbert Baker delivered the bribe.

Maybe Morton and Baker are indeed guilty of crime. I don’t know enough details to fully defend them nor to confidently convict them.

I do, however, know both Morton and Baker. Morton has contributed to multiple campaigns over the years, including my own. His support of me came in spite of my stubborn support of Governor Beebe’s Payment Improvement Initiative, a project viewed with skepticism by nursing homes. Baker and I have worked together for almost a decade. While in the Legislature, we fought very publicly on issues like tax cuts and budget cuts. He was always a little too pushy and I was always a little too quick to push back.

So as I read the guilty plea signed by Maggio, there was a notable absence of the “smoking gun” I was scanning so quickly to find. It says Morton gave a lot of money to a lot of people. It says Gilbert helped raise and deliver that money. Some of that money was given to Maggio, who by most accounts seems like an insecure, sub-par attorney with a host of personal and professional problems other than this accusation of bribery. That’s worth noting, because “other problems” can be powerful leverage and motivation when in search of a self-serving plea deal.

If the charge was bad judgment, I think all three men could be convicted. That’s because as Morton and Baker were throwing around money to dozens of candidates across the state, Maggio was the only one with a pending court case that affected Morton. They should have been smarter. Fundraising deadlines and election dates being what they are, Baker gave the money anyway.

But here’s the but. Maggio states that when the money was given, Baker texted about the pending case and said “win lose or draw, you’re our guy.” Isn’t that a pretty big deal? Isn’t that the opposite of bribery? Maggio says he took that as a reminder that the ruling was important, rather than interpret it to mean exactly what it said.

Anyone that knows Baker knows that he can let his words and his hands occasionally get ahead of his thoughts. But in this case – at least according to Maggio – it seems like that didn’t happen. At least for now, it looks like Baker was cautious and emphasized the actual lack of a quid-pro-quo. You can argue that it was simply understood, but that could apply to any political contribution to any decision-maker in any branch of government.

I’ve seen a lot of hand-wringing from liberals and politicos about this situation, but it mostly centers on a general dislike for money in politics. They are cynics, and some of it’s deserved.

If I were a cynic, I’d point out that lawyers have long-enjoyed a nice and healthy control of the judiciary branch. Tort reform is a major issue in the current session, and Morton and Baker were major advocates. Maybe they were giving all this money not in an effort to buy the judiciary, but to simply ensure the trial lawyers owned a little bit less of it. If so, they picked one bad apple in Maggio, and the consequences have been severe.

The hypocrisy manifests itself when some choose to act as if money were non-existent in the judiciary before the perceived evils of Morton and Baker. It existed, but it was one-sided. Lawyers contributed to elect other lawyers to the bench and then practice in front of the friend they just helped elect. If you were the business owner who keeps getting sued and finding yourself at the mercy of this system, would you try to change it?

Finally, the public case against Morton might be stronger if he contributed only to those who could help him. His reputation is the opposite, both in the personal and the professional sharing of his wealth.

In time, we will know all of the facts. If Maggio has more evidence, it will be presented, and Morton and Baker should pay the price if it is incriminating. Until then, I’ll save the hand-wringing and premature judgment to those who enjoy doing that type of thing.

I just like to hope that the worst doesn’t always turn out to be true.