State donor's cash in several war chests
Posted: January 18, 2015 at 3:10 a.m.
Updated: January 18, 2015 at 3:11 a.m.
Updated: January 18, 2015 at 3:11 a.m.
In the past 15 years, more than $1.2 million in campaign gifts to candidates for Arkansas' most powerful political offices have originated with one man: Fort Smith nursing home owner Michael Morton.
In a state where fundraisers consider $1,000 a decent-size campaign donation, Morton and his businesses gave $88,000 to newly elected Attorney General Leslie Rutledge's campaign last year, according to an Arkansas Democrat-Gazette review of campaign finance disclosure records.
Morton directed $30,000 to new Gov. Asa Hutchinson's 2014 race and $36,000 to Hutchinson's Democratic opponent, Mike Ross.
And Morton generated more than $100,000 in campaign contributions for five successful Arkansas Supreme Court candidates over the past five years: Justices Rhonda Wood ($40,000), Courtney Goodson ($25,000), Karen Baker ($24,000), Josephine Linker Hart ($10,000) and Robin Wynne ($5,000).
Political fundraisers have long known Morton as one of the state's most generous campaign contributors. Now the nursing home owner's donations are drawing scrutiny for another reason.
In a Jan. 9 guilty plea to a federal bribery charge, former Faulkner County Circuit Judge Michael Maggio admitted reducing a jury's award in a negligence lawsuit against a Faulkner County nursing home from $5.2 million to $1 million.
In exchange for the ruling, Maggio's plea said, the judge was to receive campaign contributions from the nursing facility's owner, identified as "Individual A." News accounts and separate court records, however, have named the nursing home -- Greenbrier Nursing and Rehabilitation Center -- and its owner as Morton.
The plea also mentioned an "Individual B" who served as a go-between for the donations. Former state Sen. Gilbert Baker has acknowledged helping raise money for Maggio's campaign.
Neither Morton nor Baker have been charged with any crimes.
Baker could not be reached for comment last week. Morton declined to talk about the Maggio case or other campaign contributions.
In earlier interviews, Morton has said he expects nothing more from judges than for them to "follow the laws of Arkansas."
Maggio, 53, could face a maximum sentence of up to 10 years in prison, up to three years of supervised release and a fine of up to $250,000.
The newspaper's review of Morton's campaign gifts since late 1999 found donations to more than 170 candidates for office, ranging from the U.S. Congress to the Arkansas Legislature.
The newspaper studied only campaign finance records filed with Secretary of State Mark Martin's office, which include statewide and legislative races. The review did not look at reports filed by candidates seeking county or city offices.
Morton and more than 40 of his businesses provided almost $1,245,000 to statewide and legislative candidates in the past 15 years, the newspaper found.
The Democrat-Gazette reviewed more than 750 campaign donation records listing gifts from Morton or his nursing homes to candidates and political parties.
At least 12 candidates accepted $20,000 or more from the nursing home operator, records show. In addition to Rutledge, Hutchinson, Ross and the three Supreme Court justices, Wood, Goodson and Karen Baker, the candidates include: Tim Cullen, a Little Rock lawyer who ran unsuccessfully for a seat on the Supreme Court in 2014; former state Sen. Bruce Holland, R-Greenwood; former state Rep. John Burris, R-Harrison; former Republican Gov. Mike Huckabee; state Sen. Missy Thomas Irvin, R-Mountain View; and former state Rep. Denny Altes, R-Fort Smith.
The largest gifts stretch back to 2000. Huckabee's gubernatorial campaigns received $25,500 from Morton from 2000 to 2002, campaign finance records show.
Contributions to Rutledge, Cullen, Holland and Burris carried only 2014 dates.
Arkansas law sets the maximum campaign contribution from one individual at $2,000 per candidate per election. Experts say such limits exist to keep wealthy donors from having too much financial influence over public officials.
Until Arkansas voters banned corporate donations in the Nov. 4 general election, Morton and other business operators could legally skirt the gift-limit rule by donating to a candidate through each of several companies they controlled.
Channeling $88,000 in campaign gifts to Rutledge, for example, required checks from 24 Morton companies and Morton himself.
Because Rutledge faced three elections last year -- the Republican Party primary, a runoff and the general election -- her limit from a single contributor was $6,000.
Morton and at least seven of his businesses each donated the $6,000 maximum in the Rutledge races, campaign finance disclosure records show. Other Morton properties sent in $4,000 or less.
The Democrat-Gazette asked a Rutledge spokesman if she knew she had accepted $88,000 from Morton and his companies last year and if she felt any pressure for favors in return.
Rutledge "has not, nor has she ever been asked to, and will never, provide services in response to a campaign contribution," spokesman Judd Deere wrote in an emailed response.
The newspaper asked how the donations might appear to affect the attorney general's role in investigating nursing homes accused of patient abuse and other wrongdoing.
"Attorney General Rutledge ... will work to investigate and prosecute anyone who abuses or neglects those in nursing home facilities," the spokesman wrote.
The Democrat-Gazette attempted last week to contact all 12 candidates for statewide, legislative and judicial offices who have accepted at least $20,000 in campaign gifts from Morton and his businesses, as found in campaign finance records.
Most did not immediately respond.
One who did was Little Rock attorney Cullen, who lost his race last year for the Arkansas Supreme Court to then-Court of Appeals Judge Robin Wynne. Morton and his nursing homes contributed $38,000 toward Cullen's campaign, records show.
"Michael Morton, like every citizen, has a fundamental right to participate in elections by making publicly disclosed campaign contributions within the legal limits," Cullen wrote in an email. "Maggio's guilty plea is a stain on the independence, impartiality, and integrity of the judiciary; however, I do trust that the members of the Arkansas Supreme Court, Court of Appeals, and trial judges all over the state have the courage and character to rule on cases based on the law and the facts, and are not unduly influenced by campaign contributions from any source."
Cullen went on to say that Morton's campaign contributions are disclosed in public records, unlike so-called dark money spent by nonprofit groups in his campaign and others that are not required to reveal financial backers' names.
"By publicly disclosing campaign contributions, anyone appearing before a judge can assess the potential for bias, and ask the judge to recuse," or remove himself, from a case, Cullen wrote.
Burris, the former legislator, said in an emailed interview that he didn't feel pressure to perform political favors in return for $28,000 that Morton and his companies contributed to his 2014 campaign.
"If Mr. Maggio allowed a campaign contribution to affect a decision he made as a public official, he should be held accountable," Burris wrote. "I have accepted contributions from Mr. Morton. He was one of the least aggressive persons with whom I worked. We interacted less than a handful of times. I was under no pressure from him or any of his associates."
Mark Henry, campaign manager for Justice Baker, said his candidate followed judicial ethics rules that require those candidates to distance themselves from donors and fundraising to help avoid conflicts of interest and apparent conflicts of interest.
"She never once indicated she was aware of the source of her funding," Henry said. "She had no interest or direct involvement."
After Maggio's guilty plea to the federal charge of bribery concerning programs receiving federal funds, a lawyer working for the family of patient Martha Bull, who died in Morton's Greenbrier nursing home, talked to the newspaper.
Thomas Buchanan urged lawmakers and other elected officials to stop accepting campaign donations from Morton.
"They need to return what they have [already received] because if you think that there's not something expected in return, think again," he said.
None of the public officials and former candidates interviewed by the newspaper said they planned to return Morton contributions.
A spokesman for Justice Wood said she already had refunded a portion of Morton's donations.
Records show she returned $23,000, in addition to the $40,000 she accepted.
The spokesman said Wood had no further comment.
Rutledge's spokesman said Rutledge "has not returned any of the contributions."
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