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New Hampshire governor Maggie Hassan to return lawyers’ donations

A campaign spokeswoman for incumbent Republican Senator Kelly Ayotte (right) had called on Governor Maggie Hassan earlier Sunday to return the donations.
Jim Cole/Associated Press/File 2016
A campaign spokeswoman for incumbent Republican Senator Kelly Ayotte (right) had called on Governor Maggie Hassan earlier Sunday to return the donations.

New Hampshire Governor Maggie Hassan said Sunday she will return campaign donations from partners of a Boston law firm, following a report published in the Boston Globe that revealed the firm had given the partners more than $1 million in apparent reimbursements for contributions.

The investigation by the Globe Spotlight team and the Center for Responsive Politics found 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, published online Saturday and in Sunday’s newspaper. More than 280 contributions matched bonuses that were paid within 10 days.

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In a statement Sunday, a spokesman for Hassan — a Democrat who is in the midst of a race for US Senate — said the campaign was unaware of the “practices inside this firm.”

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“We assume that as the Globe reported, none of the other Republican or Democratic candidates who received contributions knew either,” Aaron Jacobs, communications director for Maggie Hassan for New Hampshire, wrote in an e-mail. “We will be returning the contributions from this firm.”

Only one Republican senator, Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, has received donations from lawyers at the firm, the report said. There’s no indication that any politician who received money from Thornton lawyers knew about the law firm’s questionable reimbursement system.

Hassan will return $51,000: $38,000 from her Senate campaign and $13,000 from the state committee from her gubernatorial campaign, Jacobs said.

Liz Johnson, a campaign spokeswoman for incumbent Republican Senator Kelly Ayotte, had called on Hassan earlier Sunday to return the donations, calling it a “troubling pattern that raises serious ethical and legal questions.”

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Experts interviewed for the report said the reimbursement program raised red flags 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 reviewed by outside lawyers and complied with applicable laws. The firm hired a former federal prosecutor, Brian Kelly, to respond to the Globe’s questions.

Kelly told the Globe the “bonuses” should not have been called such because they were deducted from the lawyers’ equity, or ownership, of the firm.

Kelly also provided a statement to the Globe from Michael Thornton, chairman of the firm, in which he said “an error made internally” led to the payments being called bonuses, and that label had been changed in 2015.

Wisconsin Senate candidate Russ Feingold, who received $45,000 from firm partners, also plans to return that money, according to the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel.

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Feingold told reporters Sunday that he met Michael Thornton in Boston last year but does not know him “beyond that,” the Journal Sentinel reported.

“There’s no tolerance from my campaign or from me for anything that would even skirt on the possibility of being inappropriate,” he told the Journal Sentinel. “The only thing to do is to take the action we took because we won’t tolerate anything of that kind.”

Felicia Gans can be reached at felicia.gans@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @FeliciaGans.