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Will Maggie Hassan Return Dirty Campaign Cash?

In an investigation by the Boston Globe’s spotlight team, the Boston based Thornton Law Firm has come under fire for giving its staff “bonus” payments to reimburse campaign donations to political candidates.

In an investigation by the Boston Globe’s spotlight team, the Boston based Thornton Law Firm has come under fire for giving its staff “bonus” payments to reimburse campaign donations to political candidates. This practice is illegal.

Among the beneficiaries of this illegal straw donation scheme is Maggie Hassan. Hassan received $29,400 from employees of Thornton.

The Globe used a donation to Hassan’s 2014 gubernatorial campaign to illustrate how the illegal activity works:

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On June 10, 2014: Partner David Strouss gave $1,000 to Maggie Hassan of New Hampshire. Six days later, he gave $2,500 to John Walsh of Montana. On June 16, 2014, he received a bonus for $3,500.

Will Maggie Hassan return the tainted donations? What promises did Hassan make to Thornton Law Firm? Was she aware of the straw donation scheme?

In case you missed it…

Boston Globe: Law firm ‘bonuses’ tied to political donations

Jon Tester didn’t come all the way from Montana for the scrambled eggs and bacon. The US senator, virtually unknown in Boston, was in a conference room at the Thornton Law Firm that June morning to cash in at one of the most reliable stops on the Democratic fund-raising circuit, a law firm that pours millions into the coffers of the party and its politicians.

Tester, a massive, jovial man who raises livestock on his family farm, was more compelling than many of the other breakfast guests, all of them political candidates the firm hoped would defend the interests of trial attorneys. But the drill was basically the same. The personal injury lawyers listened politely for a few minutes, then returned to their offices. And Tester walked away with $26,400 in checks.

But a striking thing happened the day Tester visited in 2010. Partner David C. Strouss received a payment from the firm labeled as a “bonus” that exactly equaled his $2,400 contribution to Tester’s campaign, the maximum allowed. A few days later, partner Garrett Bradley — until recently the House assistant majority leader on Beacon Hill — got a bonus, too, exactly matching his $2,400 gift to Tester.

This pattern of payments — contributions offset by bonus payments — was commonplace at Thornton, according to a review of law firm records by the Spotlight Team and the Center for Responsive Politics, a Washington-based nonprofit that tracks campaign finance data.

From 2010 through 2014, Strouss and Bradley, along with founding partner Michael Thornton and his wife, donated nearly $1.6 million to Democratic Party fund-raising committees and a parade of politicians — from Senate minority leader Harry Reid of Nevada to Hawaii gubernatorial candidate David Ige to Senator Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts. Over the same span, the lawyers received $1.4 million listed as “bonuses” in Thornton Law Firm records; more than 280 of the contributions precisely matched bonuses that were paid within 10 days.

That payback system, which involved other partners as well, helped make Thornton the 11th-ranked law firm nationally for political contributions in 2014, according to data analyzed by the center, even though it is not among the 100 largest in Massachusetts.

That’s because reimbursing people for their political donations is generally illegal, several experts said. When political donors are repaid for their donations, it can conceal the real source of contributions, and enable the unnamed source of the funds to exceed state and federal contribution limits. And in some states — Massachusetts among them — political donations to state candidates from corporations and partnerships such as Thornton Law Firm are flatly illegal.

Reimbursing donors is “among the most serious campaign violations, in the view of both the Federal Election Commission and the Department of Justice,” said Daniel Petalas, an attorney who served as acting general counsel of the FEC until September.

Over three election cycles — 2010, 2012, and 2014 — Thornton partners contributed more than $3.4 million to candidates and the party nationwide, especially Democratic Senate candidates who opposed overhauling the asbestos litigation system.

Bonus checks that were reviewed by the Globe made clear that the payments were for political donations, with notations giving the name of the politician the partner had donated to.

If those donations were determined to have actually been made by the firm — because the lawyers were reimbursed — they would be illegal, since political contributions from corporations or partnerships are prohibited in Massachusetts.