- Associated Press - Friday, February 12, 2016

LITTLE ROCK, Ark. (AP) - A former circuit judge in central Arkansas asked a federal judge Friday to allow him to withdraw his guilty plea on a federal bribery charge, two weeks before he is scheduled to be sentenced.

In his motion to withdraw the plea for Michael Maggio, attorney James Hensley wrote that Maggio’s previous lawyers had erred in advising him to plead guilty last year. Hensley said there was no evidence the bribe involved government business as required under the charges and argued that the whole case should be dismissed.

“A judge who accepts a bribe in exchange for a favorable ruling in a civil case cannot be convicted under section 666 as a matter of law,” he wrote.

Maggio is scheduled to be sentenced on Feb. 26. Chief U.S. District Judge Brian S. Miller denied Maggio’s motions to relieve his two previous attorneys on Thursday, saying he could add Hensley but not dismiss the others so close to the sentencing. The motions were sealed, and Miller’s order is the only indication of their content.

Chris Givens, a spokesman for the U.S. Attorney for the Eastern District of Arkansas, said he could not comment about the specific legal arguments in the filing, but said the office would “file an appropriate response at the appropriate time.”

Hensley, who didn’t immediately return a phone message seeking comment, cited two rulings in federal cases where judges were accused of accepting bribes from attorneys in exchange for favorable rulings. In a 2011 Mississippi case, a federal judge overturned a jury’s conviction of the same statute that Maggio is charged under, saying there was no evidence that the bribe was made in connection to government business or transactions.

Maggio admitted as part of his guilty plea in January 2015 that he had accepted campaign donations from an unnamed nursing home owner and lobbyist in exchange for reducing a jury award in a negligence case involving one of the nursing home owner’s facilities.

Maggio was accused of accepting the $50,000 donation two days before reducing the jury’s $5.2 million award to just $1 million. Prosecutors said the donation, which included $24,000 from the company’s owner, was made in July 2013.

Hensley wrote that Maggio was “unaware at the time” that the actions he pleaded guilty to were not covered by the statute used to charge him. He also said Maggio admitted to taking the money and allowing it to influence him because he was advised to do so and because he was “threatened by the U.S. Attorney with the indictment and prosecution of his wife.”

Hensley argued in his Friday filing that the judge should also allow the withdrawal of guilty plea because the previous attorneys were deficient in advising Maggio to plead guilty, saying it is reasonable to assume without that error, the former judge would have insisted on going to trial.

Maggio was removed from the bench in 2014 by the Arkansas Supreme Court after he made comments online about a variety of topics, including women, sex, race and divorce. He was also accused of revealing confidential details about actress Charlize Theron’s adoption of her son.

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