LITTLE ROCK — A federal appeals court Monday upheld a former Arkansas judge’s conviction and 10-year prison sentence for accepting a bribe to lower a jury award in a civil lawsuit.
The 8th Circuit Court of Appeals in St. Louis affirmed the conviction of Michael Maggio, a former central Arkansas circuit judge who admitted he reduced a jury award against a nursing home operator in exchange for campaign contributions.
In 2013, Maggio reduced a judgment against Greenbrier Nursing and Rehabilitation Center in a negligence suit from $5.2 million to $1 million after its owner, Fort Smith businessman Michael Morton, donated about $24,000 to Maggio’s campaign through several of his businesses. Morton has not been charged with a crime.
Maggio pleaded guilty in January 2015 to theft or bribery concerning programs receiving public funds. In February 2016 he filed a motion to withdraw his plea, but U.S. District Judge Brian Miller denied the motion. Maggio was sentenced about a month later.
On appeal, Maggio argued that he should have been allowed to withdraw his guilty plea because the charge against him was not supported by the facts. He claimed there was no connection between the money he received and federal money and that there was no quid-pro-quo relationship between his receipt of the campaign contributions and his decision to lower the jury award.
A three-judge panel of the 8th Circuit said in its opinion Monday that Maggio admitted taking the campaign contributions in exchange for a ruling, so the money he received was connected to the business of his court, which receives some federal funding.
“We have no doubt that when a judge issues an order remitting a judgment in a case before him, he is acting in connection with the business of his court,” the appeals court said in an opinion written by Judge William Jay Riley.
Maggio also claimed there was no quid-pro-quo relationship between the money he received and his ruling, arguing that the ruling was appropriate.
The 8th Circuit said this argument reflected “a fundamental misunderstanding of his crime.”
“Simply put, Maggio admitted he took money intending it to color his judgment in a case. That was illegal, whether or not a judge who was not corrupt might have ruled the same way,” Riley wrote in the opinion.
Maggio also argued on appeal that his 10-year sentence was unreasonable because it was enhanced based on his position as a judge, even though the offense level was already enhanced because he was a public official.
The 8th Circuit disagreed, saying Miller found, reasonably, that an extra enhancement was merited. The appeals court noted that Miller stated from the bench that the fact Maggio was a judge who issued a ruling in exchange for a bribe made his offense particularly objectionable.
The court quoted Miller as saying, “What is worse: A dope dealer on the phone talking about a dope deal, or a dirty judge? There’s no question. In society, a dirty judge is by far more harmful to society than any dope dealer. Now, you say dope dealers kill people and they do all of that, but a judge is the system.”