BOSTON (Legal Newsline) - As trial lawyers seek a Democratic majority in the U.S. Senate, as well as a Democratic president, a major asbestos firm in Massachusetts is catching flak for doling out bonuses to its attorneys that match their contributions to various political campaigns -- mostly Democratic.
The Boston Globe reported over the weekend that the Thornton Law Firm in Boston, over the span of four years and three election cycles, donated more than $3 million to Democratic Party fund-raising committees and various politicians, including Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev.; U.S. Sen. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts, a Democrat; U.S. Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., and a former trial lawyer; and, even more notably, Presidential candidate Hillary Clinton.
Hundreds of the political contributions “precisely matched” bonuses paid by the firm to Thornton attorneys and, in some cases, the names of candidates were written in the bonus checks’ memos, according to a review of the firm’s records by the Globe’s Spotlight Team and the Center for Responsive Politics. The Washington, D.C.-based research group is non-partisan, independent and non-profit. It tracks money in U.S. politics and its effect on elections and public policy.
The firm, well known for representing victims of asbestos and toxic exposure and personal injury accidents, told the Globe that its “donation reimbursement program” was looked at and given the OK by outside lawyers.
But Massachusetts’ Office of Campaign and Political Finance, an independent state agency that administers the state’s campaign finance law and a limited public financing program for statewide candidates, said Massachusetts law prohibits a person or entity from “disguising” the true source of a campaign contribution.
Jason Tait, director of communications and public education for the OCPF, told Legal Newsline Tuesday that state law also prohibits a corporation, LLC or partnership to contribute, directly or indirectly, to a candidate or party.
When asked whether the OCPF would consider investigating the Thornton Law Firm, in particular founding partner Michael Thornton, Tait said the office does not confirm or deny the existence of investigations.
“However, our office does review every complaint filed with our office,” he said.
Tait added that the office -- which receives reports filed by hundreds of candidates and committees, reviews them to ensure accurate disclosure and legal compliance and conducts legal reviews of campaign finance activity -- recently resolved a similar case that resulted in a $185,000 civil forfeiture payment.
“The fundamental purpose of the Massachusetts campaign finance law is to assist in maintaining the integrity of the Commonwealth’s electoral system,” according to the OCPF’s website.
The state’s Office of Bar Counsel -- Massachusetts’ independent administrative body that investigates, evaluates and prosecutes complaints against lawyers -- could not be reached for comment on whether it would investigate.
The OBC’s mission, according to its , is to “protect the public from unethical conduct by lawyers and to preserve and enhance the integrity and high standards of the bar.”
Thornton himself has contributed $260,000 in individual campaign donations during this election cycle, alone.
His generous donations have garnered him the praise and attention of the American Association for Justice, formerly the Association of Trial Lawyers of America. A lobbying organization for plaintiffs lawyers in the U.S., the AAJ focuses on opposing tort reform.
In 2010, he was one of six plaintiffs attorneys to be awarded the AAJ’s Heavy Lifting Award. The award is given to individuals who “show exemplary leadership with regards to fundraising,” according to the AAJ’s website.
“These recipients have gone above and beyond the call of duty to help raise significant funds for our association," it says.
Then, earlier this year, Thornton was given the AAJ’s Howard Twiggs Award. The award recognizes an AAJ member of at least 10 years standing whose “passion, civility, cordiality, and professionalism reflect the high standards set by Howard Twiggs; and whose courtroom advocacy and distinguished service to AAJ have brought honor to the trial bar and the legal profession.”
The Center for Justice & Democracy, a non-profit, non-partisan consumer rights organization dedicated to fighting tort reform, also recognized Thornton as a “generous supporter” and one of its “special friends.” In July, Joanne Doroshow, on behalf of the CJ&D, received the AAJ Partnership Award.
The AAJ could not be reached for comment on whether it was aware of the political donation-tied bonuses when it gave Thornton the awards or whether it regrets giving them to him.
However, AAJ CEO Linda Lipsen has said the Senate is a must-win for plaintiffs attorneys, and so is the Presidency.
“If we’re going to take back the Senate we’ve got to do it now,” Lipsen said last year at an AAJ convention in Montreal, according to a source.
“In order for the Senate to turn, Hillary has to win. I don’t think there is any ability to turn back the Senate if Hillary were to lose.”
Reid was flown to the event from Washington, D.C. on a private jet owned by the Williams Kherkher Law Firm of Houston.
Lipsen, who introduced the former majority leader at fundraising event, described her group's "unbelievable" success in derailing an asbestos bankruptcy trust fund proposal in 2006. The legislation would have set aside $140 billion to compensate victims of asbestos exposure in a trust system, cutting out plaintifff's lawyers who take 30-40 percent of all compensation via the court system.
"On asbestos we won by one vote," Lipsen said. "One vote. Why did we win by one vote? Because Senator Reid asked Senator (Daniel) Inouye to take a walk.”
"One vote. One vote- Senator Reid. If not for Senator Reid, every victim in this country of asbestos poisoning would have no remedy and no rights. Senator Reid did that. It's unbelievable."
Inouye, the longtime senator from Hawaii who died in 2012, told the New York Times
at the time that he had gone home because his wife was ill.
Lipsen isn’t the only one calling on trial lawyers to support the AAJ in taking back the Senate and the Oval Office.Last month, at the largest gathering of mass torts plaintiffs attorneys in the nation, prominent Dallas attorney Lisa Blue Baron announced she was interviewing for her “dream job”
at the White House as a member of a panel that would help vet federal judges.
While she has since said she misspoke, Baron spent some of her time at the Mass Torts Made Perfect, or MTMP, biannual conference in Las Vegas rallying for Clinton and other Democratic hopefuls.
“We will never have the chance to take back the (U.S.) Senate like we might in the next three weeks,” Baron told attendees, according to a source.
“I can tell you this about Hillary Clinton: she cares about civil justice, she cares about consumers and people that are injured. But without a Democratic Senate, it is going to be a parking lot.”
Clinton is among at least 12 politicians who, in light of the Globe report this weekend, have now promised to return the donations from the Thornton Law Firm. Warren said she will give hers back if they are found to be illegal.
From Legal Newsline: Reach Jessica Karmasek by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.