Infamous nursing-home owner Michael Morton met with lobbyist Gilbert Baker a second time to discuss (unethical? illegal?) judicial campaign contributions, including those to since-ousted Circuit Judge Michael Maggio (who admitted to being bribed by Morton).  In January, Maggio, 53, pleaded guilty to a felony bribery charge in a case that resulted from his handling of a negligence lawsuit filed against Morton’s Greenbrier nursing home in the 2008 death of patient Martha Bull.  In his plea agreement, Maggio admitted accepting campaign contributions, at least in part, in return for being “influenced and induced” to lower the Faulkner County jury’s $5.2 million negligence lawsuit judgment in the Bull case to $1 million on July 10, 2013.  That ruling came two days after Morton wrote $24,000 in checks to eight political action committees, seven of which later helped finance Maggio’s campaign. Morton has said he mailed the checks to Baker’s home and has produced a FedEx receipt showing a delivery from his office to Baker’s house on July 9, 2013.  Neither Morton nor Baker have been charged with a crime yet.

Baker, a former state senator and fundraiser for Maggio’s now-halted campaign for the Arkansas Court of Appeals, did not return a phone message seeking comment. Former U.S. Attorney Bud Cummins, who represents Baker in a federal criminal investigation relating to those contributions, declined to comment.

Until now, there has not been any public mention of a second meeting between Morton and Baker about the Maggio campaign. Baker, a Conway Republican, has never publicly acknowledged the first meeting that Morton has said took place at Brave New Restaurant with Baker and Baker’s associate Linda Leigh Flanagin.  In an email to the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, Morton spokesman Matt DeCample wrote, “When Baker first mentioned donating to Maggio’s campaign to Morton, it was at an event both attended at Brave New Restaurant. … However, that was just a brief mention in passing at an event.

Asked when and where the second Morton-Baker meeting took place, DeCample said Tuesday that he would have to check to see whether that information was considered part of the investigation and did not know how much detail he could provide. He later replied in an email saying in part, “I can’t get into other details beyond that which aren’t yet in the public record (court records, ethics commission report, etc.) while the federal investigation remains open.”

When Morton testified before the staff of the Arkansas Ethics Commission in May 2014, he said, however, that he ran into Baker and Flanagin at the restaurant, was asked if he’d support Maggio and replied, “yes,” according to a commission-released summary of the testimony.  In June 2014, Baker appeared before the commission staff and testified that he did not remember specifically asking Morton for contributions but said he would not deny that he did because he asked Morton to donate money all the time.

Michael Morton, who owns about 15 percent of all nursing homes in Arkansas, is pushing forward with plans to expand his empire. He has donated more than $1.3 million over the past 16 years to various political campaigns. Morton expects to start construction on his first assisted-living center this year in Hot Springs, and in January he launched a pharmacy business to “serve” his nursing homes, another revenue stream.

In November, he bought three nursing homes in central Arkansas in transactions totaling $11.4 million, bringing his total currently operating to 27. And he has two new 120-bed homes under construction, one in Little Rock that’s expected to open in August or September and a Clarksville location that will replace his nursing home in Johnson County in August.

The nursing homes he operated in the fiscal year that ended in June 2013 generated $148.65 million in revenue and $14.3 million in profit, according to the most recent figures available from the Arkansas Department of Human Services. (Four of his nursing homes were among the 10 most profitable facilities in the state that year.)  On the advice of his attorneys at Hardin Jesson & Terry PLC of Fort Smith, Morton has also adopted a scheme to divide the corporate structure for each of his facilities. One company operates the nursing home while a leasing company, also controlled by Morton, owns the building. In addition, Morton’s Central Arkansas Nursing Centers Inc. contracts to provide “administrative services” to each nursing home in which Morton is a stockholder.  He also added within the last few years mandatory arbitration clauses to the admission papers, so if a dispute does arise it will be settled outside of the courtroom.

David Couch, a plaintiff’s attorney, told Arkansas Business that Morton’s legal strategy is working — “if the goal is not to be held accountable when you hurt someone.”

See articles at Arkansas Online and Arkansas Business.

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