10/31/2016 05:15 pm ET Updated Nov 01, 2017

Clinton, Walsh Return Donations From Boston Law Firm


New Hampshire Governor Maggie Hassan said Sunday she will return campaign donations from partners of a Boston law firm. (AP Photo/Jim Cole, File)

OpenSecrets Blog and The Boston Globe's Spotlight team partnered on this story; it was published by both outlets.

Boston Mayor Martin J. Walsh has joined a growing list of politicians who said they are returning thousands of dollars in donations from lawyers at the Boston-based Thornton Law Firm, after a Spotlight Team report on a pattern of questionable campaign contributions.

"We're reviewing everything," said Walsh, who has received at least $34,000 in donations from the firm's lawyers over the years, according to state records. "What we're doing now is sending back more than $15,000 in donations that were received this year. We'll look at all of it and do whatever we have to do by law."

In addition, a campaign official for presidential candidate Hillary Clinton said she would be donating the Thornton donations she's received to the US Treasury. He didn't say how much, but Center for Responsive Politics records show that Clinton has received at least $20,000 from lawyers at the firm and their spouses this year. Most of the money came in Aug. or Sept., including several contributions on Sept. 30.

So far 10 politicians from across the country, including eight US Senate candidates, said they will be returning at least $200,000 in political donations after a Spotlight Team report on Sunday described how the firm paid its owner-partners "bonuses" to reimburse them for their political donations.

The Republican Party, Governor Charlie Baker and a conservative think tank Monday called on federal and state campaign finance watchdogs to investigate more than $1 million in campaign contributions from the firm's lawyers.

"I certainly hope this issue gets investigated," said Baker. "I think this particular story in the Globe raises a number of serious issues, and I hope that the parties that are involved in regulating campaign finance at the state and federal level take a look at it."

The Mass Fiscal Alliance wrote the state's Office of Campaign and Political Finance, requesting that it investigate more than $250,000 in donations Thornton lawyers wrote to local candidates. If OCPF regulators open an investigation, it will be the biggest campaign finance inquiry in state history, records show.

The Globe's Spotlight Team and the Center for Responsive Politics, a Washington D.C.-based non-profit that analyzes campaign spending, reported Sunday that three partners of Thornton Law Firm and one of the partner's wives donated nearly $1.6 million to Democratic Party fund-raising committees and politicians from 2010 to 2014.

During the same period, the partners received $1.4 million in "bonuses," according to the report, and more than 280 of the contributions matched bonuses that were paid within 10 days.

Experts told the Globe the reimbursement program could violate federal and state laws because repaying donors for their donations can conceal the source of donations and enable the actual source of the money to exceed contribution limits.

Thornton said the program was approved by an outside lawyer and the firm's accountant and complied with applicable laws. Lawyers for the firm said the reimbursements were legal because they came out of the partners' own money.

On Sunday, New Hampshire Governor Maggie Hassan said Sunday she would return $51,000 in campaign donations she received from the law firm, the Globe reported. Hassan is the Democratic candidate for the US Senate in this year's election.

Since then, these US Senate candidates said they too would be returning the Thornton money: Russell Feingold, of Wisconsin; Catherine Cortez-Masto of Nevada; Katie McGinty of Pennsylvania, Ted Strickland of Ohio, Patrick Murphy, of Florida, Jason Kander of Missouri and Tammy Duckworth of Illinois.

"Rep. Duckworth immediately instructed her campaign to issue a check to the U.S. Treasury in the amount of $26,100 upon learning of this," said Matt McGrath, the campaign spokesman. "Rep. Duckworth has long been a proponent of campaign finance reform and overturning Citizens United to keep dark money out of politics, and this practice is totally inconsistent with her approach."

In a statement Monday, Kirsten Hughes, chairman of the Massachusetts Republican Party, said the Globe's story should lead the Federal Election Commission and the state Office of Campaign and Political Finance to investigate any donations received by Massachusetts elected officials.

"It's troubling to see that so many Massachusetts Democrats have taken donations from a firm that ran a potentially illegal fundraising scheme designed to circumvent campaign finance rules," Huges said in a statement. "Regulators at OCPF and the FEC must immediately investigate this Democrat fundraising scheme and the candidates who participated in it, to ensure the integrity of our campaign finance system."

Jay Cincotti, the executive director of the state's Democratic Party, one of the largest recipients of donations from the firm said it is "reviewing the contributions with our legal counsel and compliance team. We take campaign finance issues very seriously."

Cincotti then called the Republican party hypocritical for "pointing fingers while, at the same time, helping Charlie Baker run a laundering scheme that not only promises access to the governor, but that funnels tens of thousands of dollars from the RNC into Baker's campaign coffers.

According to the Globe story, Democratic US Sen. Elizabeth Warren and her associated PAC for a Level Playing Field received $129,520 from lawyers connected to the Thornton law firm while the state Democratic Party collected $181,400.

The Massachusetts Fiscal Alliance called on the OCPF to investigate the law firm and one of its partners, former assistant House majority leader Garrett Bradley, for his role in providing donations and his actions as a lawmaker on Beacon Hill. Paul Craney, executive director of the alliance, called on lawmakers to return the contributions.

"Such contributions by Bradley and his associates must be returned as part of restitution, as the monies constitute an unfair advantage,'' Craney said in a statement.