Metro

Adrian Walker

Thornton Law case shouldn’t be dropped

Massachusetts Attorney General Maura Healey.
Jessica Rinaldi/Globe Staff
Massachusetts Attorney General Maura Healey.

Until a few months ago, almost no one in Boston had ever heard of the Thornton Law Firm. As investigations of its questionable campaign-finance practices continue to mount, partners of the small but politically wired outfit may soon miss its low profile.

Thornton burst into prominence last October, after the Globe reported that the firm, which focuses on asbestos law, had reimbursed its partners for well over $1 million in donations to Democratic candidates. The way the practice worked was that lawyers (and their spouses) gave money to politicians, and the firm returned the money to them as “bonuses.” The so-called “straw” donations appear to have been intended to skirt limits on how much such firms can donate to politicians.

After the report, in which experts called the arrangement legally questionable, some prominent politicians returned the funds they had received from Thornton partners. Nonetheless, a federal grand jury began investigating the arrangement. And the state’s Office of Campaign and Political Finance seems poised to refer the mess to the attorney general’s office. OCPF’s director, Michael Sullivan, has taken the unusual step of calling for criminal charges, if warranted.

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There’s no way to exaggerate how dubious Thornton’s actions have been. Campaign finance laws are intended primarily to promote transparency. Thornton seemed intent on just the opposite. The firm has consistently maintained that it did nothing wrong, and that an outside legal adviser assured it that the practice was legal.

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Attorney General Maura Healey landed in the midst of this firestorm last week. She received $4,500 from the firm’s members in her 2014 campaign, which she returned after the initial Globe story about Thornton’s practices. Under pressure from Republicans, including Governor Charlie Baker, Healey announced late last week that she will appoint a special prosecutor and recuse herself from any investigation of Thornton, to avoid any conflict of interest.

Healey made the right decision in recusing herself from any investigation. The case is complicated by the fact that Thornton’s managing partner, Garrett Bradley, was until last year a member of leadership in the Massachusetts House. He abruptly resigned after questions began to surface about Thornton’s political donations.

Healey’s minor involvement in this matter was nothing more than a distraction from the real issue, which is the firm’s actions. Naming a special prosecutor will return the focus where it belongs.

Even before referring the case for possible prosecution, OCPF’s Sullivan has already accused Thornton of breaking state law. In a letter to the firm, he noted that the law prohibits contributions intended to disguise their true origins. OCPF has never sought criminal charges in such a case, but this case could be a first.

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Thornton’s defenders maintain that if the firm acted under legal advice, it should not be penalized. “At the end of the day if they got bad advice, it’s not their fault,” said former US Attorney Michael Sullivan, one of the Republicans who urged Healey to turn over the case to a special prosecutor. “If it turns out the opinion was wrong, it shouldn’t turn their conduct into criminal conduct.”

I am not a lawyer. But “maybe they got bad advice” seems like an awfully weak defense, especially for a law firm.

At this point, there is nothing for Healey to recuse herself from, given that the matter has not yet been referred to the AG’s office. At a hearing last week, OCPF gave Thornton an opportunity to explain why it should not face state investigation. But this case clearly demands aggressive investigation, and it would be a disservice to the public to somehow let it drop.

Influence peddling is hard to effectively regulate, and this is a good illustration of why that’s true. The high-powered partners of the Thornton Law Firm apparently believed they had found an effective loophole, and charged right through it. But a reckoning may soon be coming — as well it should.

Adrian Walker is a Globe columnist. He can be reached at adrian.walker@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @Adrian_Walker.