Election Law

Law firm partners received 'bonuses' after making political contributions; was it legal?

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Man holding money in front of US flag.

At least two politicians are returning campaign donations to a Boston personal-injury law firm after a Boston Globe report said high-profile partners who donated money were quickly reimbursed with law firm bonuses.

Partners at the Thornton Law Firm donated nearly $1.6 million to Democratic committees and politicians over a four-year period ending in 2014, the Boston Globe reports in a spotlight investigation conducted with the Center for Responsive Politics. During the same period, partners received $1.4 million in bonuses, 280 of which matched the contributions. Bonus checks reviewed by the Globe even contained a notation with the name of the politician who had received a donation.

New Hampshire Gov. Maggie Hassan said she will return $51,000 to the law firm, and Wisconsin U.S. Senate candidate Russ Feingold plans to return $45,000, report the Union Leader, a new article by the Boston Globe and the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. A Hassan spokesperson said the governor’s Senate campaign was unaware of the law firm’s practices, while a Feingold spokesperson said the campaign was disturbed to learn of the allegations about the law firm.

Others who received money from the law firm included U.S. Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid of Nevada, President Obama, Vice President Joe Biden and Sen. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts. The only Republican senator who received donations from the firm is Lindsey Graham of South Carolina. The Globe found no indication that the politicians knew about the bonus system at the firm.

The Globe reviewed contributions made by partners David Strouss, Garrett Bradley and Michael Thornton, as well as Thornton’s wife. The individual donations they made were collectively higher than the amount the law firm could have directly donated to the candidates. Federal election law allows individual donations by partners, but the money must come from their own finances.

The Thornton Law Firm was ranked 11th nationally for its political contributions in 2014. It is also a national leader for its handling of thousands of asbestos cases, though it usually has 10 or fewer equity parters. It began making donations after calls for creation of an asbestos compensation fund that would allow claimants to bypass lawyers.

Lawyer Brian Kelly, speaking for the Thornton Law Firm, said the payments should not have been called bonuses because the payments were deducted from the partners’ equity ownership at the firm. The firm said its payments complied with the law.

But Washington, D.C., lawyer Brett Kappel told the Globe that rather than deducting the contributions from the partners’ capital account, the amounts should have been deducted from partnership contributions.

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