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Connecting the dots 

There's ample reason for ethics, judicial and perhaps even prosecutorial review of the curious creation of a group of political action committees solely funded by contributions from Fort Smith nursing home magnate Michael Morton.

Fingerprints of former Republican Sen. Gilbert Baker (and lobbyist Bruce Hawkins) are all over the PACs, both through their legal agent, Chris Stewart, an old ally of Baker, and the names of people supplied as PAC officers (some without their knowledge.)

Technical questions are to be considered about whether money was taken in by PACs before they were registered and about whether some contributions in excess of legal limits were made. The quid-pro-quo question looms, too, though naturally all deny it.

But here's the core question: Is Arkansas law really so porous that somebody can create an untold number of PACs and then find a rich man to fund them all? And then each may make maximum contributions to the same candidate? I'm afraid the answer may be yes, though you'd want to take care to do better detail work than was done in the case of these Stewart creations.

Indeed, it already happens after a fashion. State politicians set up leadership PACs and then max out on candidates with help from contributors who've maxed out in other arenas. As I've reported before, Michael Morton has sent money to, among others, Sen. Eddie Joe Williams' PAC and Williams favors the sorts of candidates Morton has favored with other contributions.

The biggest mystery is why create PACs at all?

Morton is already living proof of the porous nature of campaign finance law in Arkansas. He's given better than $100,000 to judicial candidates associated with Gilbert Baker: Supreme Court candidate Rhonda Wood, former Appeals Court Candidate Mike Maggio and Circuit Judge candidates Doralee Chandler and Troy Braswell. There are others, but these are part of the Baker Republican Faulkner County phalanx, more about which later.

Why did PACs need to be created for more Morton pass-throughs? Had he exhausted the list of private corporations in whose name he gives candidates $2,000 each?

The Chris Stewart PACs are indeed interesting, particularly if they were created precisely to send a very specifically timed message to Mike Maggio as he prepared to knock $4.2 million off a verdict against a Morton nursing home in Greenbrier.

But I'm not sure that creation of PACs alone or Morton's role as sole financier is a legal problem in Arkansas. It should be, yes.

The big story isn't campaign finance funny business except to the extent that it reflects a much larger story about justice in Arkansas.

Gilbert Baker and Bruce Hawkins have worked for years in the employ of forces who want to make it harder to sue for damages in Arkansas courts: the so-called "tort reform" campaign of big business.

You may know their candidates by their frequent appearance at Republican Party gatherings — see the Faulkner County phalanx backed by Baker and Morton of, particularly, Wood, Maggio, Chandler and Braswell. You may also know them by how often they describe themselves as "conservative" jurists. If you don't understand the code, look no farther than Republican Rep. David Meeks' recent endorsement of Chandler for her "conservative" strengths. Conservative in the Republican lexicon means anti-tax, pro-gun, anti-abortion, anti-gay and pro-employer. It also means Republican friendly. It makes a mockery of the judicial canon of ethics to run in such an overtly partisan manner, but the Republican inclination of voters in the Faulkner area guarantee its use in nominally nonpartisan races.

The campaign tactic also presents fair questions, which the candidates undoubtedly would refuse to answer. Does a "conservative" candidate believe in obeying the U.S. Supreme Court? David Meeks and every single Republican in the Arkansas legislature fail that test. They voted for clearly unconstitutional restrictions on abortion and overrode Gov. Mike Beebe's veto on account of the legal deficit. Will these judicial candidates even hear the legally mandated judicial bypass procedure allowed for minors seeking an abortion? Will they respect federal precedent in the growing body of law on equal rights for married couples regardless of gender? One of them might surprise in practice, but voters will hear a very clear answer to that question from the labeling.

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