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November 1, 2016

Baker urges investigation of law firm's donations

Gov. Charlie Baker

Gov. Charlie Baker and Republican Party officials on Monday encouraged government officials to investigate a report that a politically wired law firm reimbursed partners for political contributions to Democrats, saying it "raises a number of serious issues."

"Well, I certainly hope this issue gets investigated," Baker said. He said, "I hope that the parties that are involved in regulating campaign finance at the state and federal level take a look at it."

The governor's call came as Democrats around the country, including Boston Mayor Marty Walsh and eight U.S. Senate candidates, said they would return at least $200,000 in donations connected to the firm, and Hillary Clinton said she would donate contributions from the firm to the U.S. Treasury, the Boston Globe reported Monday.

Joan Meschino, a Democrat running to succeed former Rep. Garrett Bradley of Hingham, also refunded $3,000 in contributions to her campaign from the law firm called into question in a Globe Spotlight Team report on Sunday. The returned donations were made by five attorneys from Thornton Law Firm, including a $500 donation made this month by Bradley, a partner at the firm whose endorsement Meschino has been touting in her campaign.

According to the Boston Globe, Boston Mayor Marty Walsh and eight U.S. Senate candidates said they would return at least $200,000 in donations connected to the firm after the Spotlight Team report, and Hillary Clinton said she would donate contributions from the firm to the U.S. Treasury.

Bradley, a Democrat and former senior member in House Speaker Robert DeLeo's leadership team, abruptly announced his resignation this summer after qualifying to appear on the fall ballot. Bradley said he was stepping down to take on a bigger role at Thornton.

Bradley over the years has made large campaign contributions to politicians from outside Massachusetts. The Spotlight report described a "payback system" in which the firm's attorneys received bonuses from their firm that matched the size of their large political donations.

A Thornton spokesman said its donation reimbursement program was reviewed by outside lawyers and complied with laws, according to the Globe, which quoted campaign finance experts who said raised concerns about "straw donors" and said the practice can conceal the real source of contributions, enable unnamed sources of the funds to exceed contribution limits, or run up against state laws that ban donations to state candidates by corporations or partnerships.

Thornton attorney David McMorris of Cohasset donated $550 to Meschino's campaign this year, and Republican state representative candidate Kristen Arute on Sunday night called on Meschino also to return to those donations, which were not among the initial refunded donations listed on campaign finance records. A Meschino aide said Monday that those donations had also been returned.

"Joan's campaign committee will be returning all contributions from that law firm. After reading the Globe story, Joan proactively contacted the Massachusetts Office of Campaign and Political Finance to inform them of her decision to do so," Meschino spokesman Adam Webster said in an email.

Bradley was the special guest at Meschino's general election campaign kickoff on Oct. 4 and Meschino last week touted Bradley's endorsement of her campaign in a mailing to voters in the House district. She was not available for an interview about the firm's method of handling donations or whether she felt an investigation was warranted. "What we read in the story raised concerns, and that's why Joan's campaign committee refunded all campaign contributions from that law firm," Webster said in an email.

In her statement Sunday night, Arute said, "Not only did our former State Representative appear to play a key role in this potentially illegal scheme to circumvent donation limits and hide sources of donations, but the current Democrat candidate has taken funds from employees of the same firm."

According to the Globe, Thornton hired former federal prosecutor Brian Kelly to respond to their inquiries and he said the bonuses should not have been called bonuses and that an accountant deducted the payments from the attorneys' equity, or ownership in the firm.

Bradley made $340,535 in donations between 2010 and 2014 and received $339,000 in bonuses over that period, according to the Globe. The newspaper said his June 27 resignation announcement came after it started asking questions about his law firm's business practices. The Globe's report on Sunday was written by staffer Andrea Estes and Viveca Novak, editorial director of the Center for Responsive Politics.

Politico reported Monday that New Hampshire Gov. Maggie Hassan, former Sen. Russ Feingold of Wisconsin, Rep. Patrick Murphy of Florida and others said they will return monies donated by Thornton attorneys. A Hassan spokesman said "we had no idea about the practices inside this firm, and we assume that as the Globe reported, none of the other Republican or Democratic candidates who received contributions knew either." According to Politico, a Murphy spokesman said the Globe investigation "has revealed troubling details about these donations."

The Massachusetts Fiscal Alliance on Monday urged the Massachusetts Office of Campaign and Political Finance to investigate Thornton Associates, saying the Globe had exposed an "audacious reimbursement scheme."

"The Bradley scheme boldly circumvents the reimbursement and corporate prohibition," fiscal alliance chief Paul Craney said in a statement. "Contributions received by candidates and organizations regulated by OCPF would, in fact, be tainted. Such contributions by Bradley and his associates must be returned as part of restitution, as the monies constitute an unfair advantage."

After an event announcing infrastructure grants to rural communities, Baker told reporters, "I think it's incumbent on anybody who's running for office to do everything they can to have an organization that complies with the rules."

The governor, a Republican who has amassed millions in his campaign war chest for a likely 2018 re-election bid, deferred to the politicians who accepted donations from Thornton on whether to keep them or give them back.

"I think people have to make their own decisions up with respect to that. I think there's no doubt that a lot of the folks who may have gotten contributions from that firm probably have no idea how the inner-workings of any of those organizations actually work, but it's now obviously become a public record as it was in the paper yesterday and I think people need to make their own call with respect to that," Baker said.

Releasing a long list of Democrats, including many in the Legislature, who received donations from the firm, the Massachusetts Republican Party said that no state Republican has received any contributions from Thornton.

"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," said MassGOP Chairman Kirsten Hughes. "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."

Highlighting donations from the firm to U.S. Sen. Elizabeth Warren, the state Republican party noted the Cambridge Democrat's long record of criticizing the role of corporate dollars in campaign financing. According to Warren's office, the senator believes the matter should be reviewed by authorities and if it's determined the donations were impermissible she will give the money back.

A Thornton Law Firm officials said Monday afternoon that officials there were in a meeting. A message left by the News Service was not returned.

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