Thornton squeaks out a win from divided FEC

The politically wired attorneys at Thornton Law Firm won a partial — and ironic — victory at the Federal Election Commission last week.

Andrea Estes, an investigative reporter at the Boston Globe, wrote what could wind up as the epilogue to a story she helped break three years ago. Back then, Estes and Viveca Novak at the Center for Responsive Politics uncovered the Boston firm’s practice of reimbursing partners for their political donations through so-called bonuses, which the firm maintains were legal reimbursements.

That story noted that reimbursing people for campaign contributions is generally illegal, and quoted a former acting general counsel of the FEC who described reimbursements as “among the most serious campaign violations, in the view of both the Federal Election Commission and the Department of Justice.”

The non-profit Campaign Legal Center made a complaint about Thornton to the FEC, and on Friday the agency dismissed the case after deadlocking over whether to further pursue allegations that the firm and its lawyers violated the law. But that might not be the end of it, because, as FEC chairwoman Ellen L. Weintraub told the Globe, the center can sue and try to convince a judge that the FEC decision was wrong.

The FEC results are ironic because Thornton’s political fundraising almost exclusively benefited Democrats, but it was the two Republicans on the four-member FEC who blocked further inquiry into the firm. They are expected to send out a statement about their vote, Estes reports.

Garrett Bradley, managing partner at the firm and one of the participants in the legally questionable behavior, had been a rising force in the Massachusetts House, but he resigned his elected position in June 2016, after – but not necessarily because of – Globe inquiries into the firm’s business practices.

The Massachusetts Fiscal Alliance, which is closely aligned with Bay State Republicans, asked for an investigation by state campaign finance regulators. The Office of Campaign and Political Finance found Thornton may have broken the law, but Essex District Attorney Jonathan Blodgett, who was referred the case by Attorney General Maura Healey, did not find sufficient evidence of a crime.

The FEC staff report into the matter, which is available online, says that it is “undisputed” that the contributions were reimbursed by the law firm, and said it is likely that the firm and its partners broke the law. Thornton has characterized the so-called bonuses as legal early withdrawals of capital from the firm by partners.

The complaint alleged that between 2010 and 2014, there were $1.6 million in donations to state and federal candidates made by firm partners and Amy Thornton through nearly $1.4 million in bonuses.

After the Globe story in 2016 there was a rush by Democrats to return or donate the money they had received at the firm’s fundraisers.

The ruling by the FEC doesn’t quite settle the matter. It’s not as though another law firm could look at the recent decision and decide it could use the same type of reimbursement system without any legal risk. It is another example of how the partisan divide – albeit with an ironic twist in this case – blocks government institutions from reaching a firm resolution on important matters.



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