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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.

But this isn't about lawsuits. It's about a business community that doesn't want to pay when nursing homes fail vulnerable patients in agony, as happened in the unanimous verdict returned in Republican-friendly Faulkner County.

The chamber of commerce takeover of the bench is underway. Baker has now been outed as the bagman, strategist and campaign chief.

Arkansas law in theory prohibits working as a lobbyist while sitting in the legislature. Baker was paid from secret money sources by Religious Right strategist Ralph Reed's organization, the Faith and Freedom Coalition, while he was a senator. He advanced that organization's conservative religious political goals and he also spent its money, successfully, to elect like-minded Republicans to the Arkansas legislature. This isn't being a paid lobbyist? Quack quack.

Then he got a better gig immediately after term limits — $132,000 a year from UCA to continue to work to elect Republicans to the legislature and advance the "tort reform" cause for his many benefactors, all supported by taxpayers. But even that wasn't enough money for Baker. Yet to be uncovered are the various sources of money being sent into a consulting company he formed to do government work he won't discuss. One of that firm's employees did put nursing home titan Morton together with Chris Stewart's PACs.

A family values theme resonates from all the Faulkner phalanx candidates. Gilbert Baker is a churchman. His legal facilitator Stewart was educated by Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson institutions and is closely tied with the Arkansas Family Council and credited with writing the law requiring discrimination against gay couples in Arkansas. Whatever else family values might mean to this bunch, the do-right rule appears to be honored only in the breach. Or when it can be used to torpedo a political enemy.

I've been writing about the judicial takeover from tort reform proponents for months and wrote months ago about the particular hotbed of activity in Faulkner County. I also wrote of Gilbert Baker's key role in judicial and legislative races, sometimes through front groups. I'd noted, too, the nursing home money that went to the Faulkner candidates, including Maggio, whose jaw-dropping nursing home rule was first reported here.

But little would have come of any of this but for Maggio's salacious postings on the LSU message board Tiger Droppings and then Blue Hog's brilliant public document sleuthing that connected critical dates of PAC creation and Morton campaign contributions and Maggio legal decisions.

Debra Hale-Shelton of the Democrat-Gazette has advanced the story importantly by putting a Baker hire, Linda Flanagin, in the middle of the money transfers and by getting Morton's admission that he talks often with Baker (though the circumstantial evidence of that was already clear up and down the ballot). Just look for a "conservative" judicial candidate and you'll find somebody supported by both Gilbert Baker and Michael Morton.

That's the story of this election season.

And the further evidence that we shouldn't be electing judges. In Arkansas, as we can see, justice comes cheap.

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