Thursday, March 20, 2014

The Gilbert Baker saga continues; UCA's Tom Courtway sees the light

Posted By on Thu, Mar 20, 2014 at 7:16 AM

click to enlarge NEW VIEW ON GILBERT BAKER: UCA's Tom Courtway.
Debra Hale-Shelton of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette inquires further  today into the tangled business of political money involving taxpayer-financed UCA lobbyist Gilbert Baker, Conway Circuit Judge Mike Maggio and nursing home magnate Michael Morton of Fort Smith. Noted: UCA President Tom Courtway is whistling a new tune.

The big development is significant.Hale-Shelton has discovered that Linda Flanagin of Conway, an employee of LRM Consulting, a private firm founded by former Republican Sen. Baker, approached Morton about further contributions to Mike Maggio's now aborted campaign for Court of Appeals. Soon after, Morton got info about some PACs set up by Religious Right Republican lawyer Chris Stewart to which Morton gave money. (I note the Religious Right connection because Baker himself was a paid employee while in the legislature of a Religious Right organization, Ralph Reed's Faith and Freedom Coalition, a job in which he spent money to elect Republicans.) Some of that money given to Stewart's PACs in turn went to Maggio. Morton made a number of other direct contributions to the Maggio campaign. The timing is being examined because Maggio was in the process of reducing a huge jury verdict against a Morton nursing home at the time. Morton disavows buying a favorable ruling, of course.

Hale-Shelton today credited Blue Hog Report for cracking open the torrent of coverage of Mike Maggio's dubious behavior. Alas, the Arkansas Blog's groundbreaking work gets  only a blind reference to "blogs." (Really, it wasn't necessary) But to toot horn for the benefit of paying customers: Readers here will recall I've mentioned Baker's formation of the LRM Consulting firm … Its establishment by Chris Stewart  of PAC fame as agent. …. Flanagin's association with it. … LIke-minded political fund-raising work by Flanagin and Baker and LRM.  … A recent change at the top of the LRM management, with a new man in place of Baker.

Baker, because of my critical writing, no longer grants interviews to me. If he did, I"d ask him how he could tell the D-G on the one hand that he'd hired Flanagin for LRM but that, on the other hand, she was not an employee. She identifies  herself as such in various public documents.

The dark money PACs that benefited Maggio have also shipped money to several other Republican candidates, including Sen. Bruce Holland and House candidate Stacy Hurst, who's recently decided to refund that money, given the recent bad press.

What I found very interesting was evidence in the D-G article of a change of heart by University of Central Arkansas President Tom Courtway. I spoke with Courtway Feb. 12 about Baker's political bundling work.

"He's like any other state employee. He can do on his own time whatever he wants to do" in a political realm, Courtway said.

March 5, I wrote Courtway an e-mail about Baker's work with LRM Consulting. He did not respond. Our earlier conversation, including his heated defense of Baker's political activities, apparently soured him on further communication. I quote extensively from the D-G because it's helpful in understanding whether you believe Tom Courtway and Gilbert Baker are straight shooters.

Baker said he had planned for LRM Consulting to do consulting and possibly fundraising, but he had quit working with it “basically” when he joined UCA in Jan. 15, 2013, as executive assistant to the president.

Last week, Courtway saw references to LRM Consulting on “blogs” that were covering the Maggio contention and asked about it, Baker recalled.

“I had somewhat forgotten about it,” Baker said. He recalled telling Courtway, “‘I don’t have anything to do with it’” anymore.

“Tom very directly said, ‘You need to get the paperwork changed on that.’ So, I worked through that process to get the paperwork changed. Tom was right to ask,” Baker added.

Courtway said he did not know about LRM Consulting until recently.

“I don’t want him [Baker] fundraising” for political candidates, even on his own time, Courtway said.

Baker, like others, is free to “support whoever they want [in off hours] but in terms of actively fundraising … I did not want him doing that,” Courtway said.

Baker said he’s not doing any more political fundraising.

I believe an FOI request of Baker's separate cell-phone and e-mail accounts apart from his official UCA communications would provide some detailed evidence on whether Baker "basically" quit working for LRM in January 2013 when he went to work for UCA. Is it only coincidence, for example, that he and Flanagin, identified as an LRM employee, gave political contributions to Bruce Holland on the same day?

As for those "blogs." Courtway is about my age, so maybe he forgot my March 5 e-mail specifically referencing LRM when he read on "blogs" last week about LRM. Perhaps he refers to the Arkansas Blog.

The hits are likely to keep coming. The money tentacles are many and suspicious. Take legislative candidate Trent Eilts of Conway, who is running for House. He received money from Sen. Eddie Joe Williams PAC. Morton was a $5,000 contributor to that PAC. LRM Consulting and Linda Flanagin gave Eilts  $1,150 at an Eddie Joe Williams' hosted fund-raiser last June. Baker have anything to do with that?

On a related topic: Judge Maggio needs to step down from the bench soon. According to the D-G, the first of what should be a torrent of filings for recusal has come in based on  Maggio's intemperate remarks about women on the Tiger Droppings website. A woman in divorce court wants to appear before a judge who's referred to women as "chattel"? Probaby not.

I wish Courtway had decided to tell me about his change of heart, but it's nonetheless welcome, if overdue. Somebody paid $132,000 in public money to lobby the legislature for a public institution doesn't need to set himself up as a Republican kingmaker through bundling and orchestration of support from related parties. Democrats are near irrelevancy, but not completely irrelevant just yet, as Rep. Joe Jett proved when he held up UCA's budget for a day over this.

Many questions linger about the nature of LRM Consulting work. I have questions pending with Baker about his work in some state regulatory matters. Maybe he can talk to Debra Hale-Shelton about it. Maybe she'll mention idle chatter on "blogs," if he does.

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