State regulators are recommending that Attorney General Maura Healey open a criminal investigation of nine lawyers at Boston’s Thornton Law Firm as well as seven of their spouses, concluding that the firm’s longtime practice of reimbursing lawyers for political contributions may have broken multiple laws.
Michael Sullivan, director of the state Office of Campaign and Political Finance, told Healey in an April 26 letter that his office had concluded there is “evidence of violations’’ of campaign finance laws that require political donations be made in the name of the actual donor. He said the firm as well as 16 individuals may have broken the law.
Sullivan said the evidence also indicates that Thornton Law violated the state law prohibiting corporations, partnerships, or other companies from making contributions to a candidate or political party.
Sullivan’s letter marked the first time that state officials sought criminal prosecution in a so-called straw donor case.
Federal prosecutors are already investigating whether Thornton broke federal campaign law by reimbursing lawyers for millions in donations to candidates for the US Senate and other national offices. Sullivan’s investigation focused on $175,000 in donations to state and local candidates and political parties.
If convicted at the state level, individual partners and their spouses could receive up to a year in jail for each violation and a fine of up to $1,000. The law firm could be fined up to $50,000 per violation for funneling donations through its partners.
No charges have been filed in either the state or federal courts.
Thornton officials have said that the reimbursements weren’t really bonuses at all, but the partners’ own money, taken out of each one’s equity in the firm.
In an e-mailed statement, Thornton Law called the decision “not surprising” but “particularly disappointing” because the law firm “cooperated fully” and provided “voluminous documentation” demonstrating that its donation program complied with the law.
The statement repeated what the firm has been saying for months — that the firm relied on an opinion from an outside law firm a decade ago that blessed the reimbursement program. Thornton partners and their spouses pleaded their case before Sullivan and other state officials last month, but were unable to prevent them from referring the issue to the attorney general.
The firm pledged to “cooperate with any agency or authority concerning questions they may have about partners’ contributions” and expressed confidence “that a full review of our actions will show that (the firm) acted in a legal and proper manner.”
Attorney General Maura Healey has already said she would recuse herself from the Thornton case because she received thousands in contributions from Thornton lawyers, including former House assistant majority leader Garrett Bradley, now the firm’s managing partner. She previously returned $4,500 in Thornton donations and said she would appoint an outside prosecutor if the case was referred to her office.
“In the best interest of this case, and to avoid even the appearance of a conflict, we will appoint an independent prosecutor if a referral is made to our office,” Healey spokeswoman Jillian Fennimore said in a written statement in March.
Her office affirmed that pledge on Friday.
Several Republicans, including House minority leader Bradley Jones of North Reading, Representative Shawn Dooley of Norfolk, and former US attorney Michael Sullivan, had urged Healey to step aside and name an independent prosecutor for the Thornton case.
Governor Charlie Baker stopped short of calling on Healey to appoint someone else, but said through a spokeswoman that he “believes there appears to be a conflict of interest in this case and that it must be addressed to ensure the fairest possible outcome.”
The investigations follow a Boston Globe Spotlight Team report last October detailing the way that Thornton Law Firm had emerged as one of the top financial backers of the Democratic Party nationally, in part by encouraging the firm’s partners to donate heavily. Law firm records obtained by the Globe and the Center for Responsive Politics in Washington showed that lawyers commonly received “bonus” checks exactly equal to their campaign contributions.
Such reimbursement schemes are generally illegal at the state and federal levels because they disguise the true source of the donation — in this case, the law firm.
The revelations about Thornton’s reimbursement program triggered a stampede of politicians, including Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton, eager to return the donations. So far, at least 30 politicians or political committees have returned donations worth more than $1 million from the Thornton Law Firm. Most of the money was not refunded to individual partners, but went either to the US Treasury or charity.
The referral to the attorney general’s office for criminal investigation has hung over the Thornton lawyers and their spouses since February when campaign finance regulator Sullivan flatly accused them in a letter of breaking state law.
“You violated Section 10, which prohibits individuals from making a campaign contribution in any name other than his own and except his own, nor in any manner intended to disguise the true origin of the contributions,” wrote Sullivan.
Former US attorney Michael Sullivan, a Republican who is not connected to Thornton Law, has said he doesn’t believe Thornton’s donations were illegal.
Former US attorney Sullivan , who worked as Plymouth district attorney when Bradley was an assistant, noted that an outside law firm reviewed Thornton’s reimbursement program and found it to be legal.
“At the end of the day, if they got bad advice, it’s not their fault,” he said. “If it turns out the opinion was wrong, it shouldn’t turn their conduct into criminal conduct.”
But several campaign law experts have said Thornton’s conduct raises serious issues and could constitute the biggest straw donor scandal in US history.
Reimbursing donors is “among the most serious campaign violations, in the view of both the Federal Election Commission and the Department of Justice,” said Daniel Petalas an attorney who served as acting general counsel of the FEC until last September.
Andrea Estes can be reached at email@example.com.