Lawyers at the Federal Election Commission found that Boston’s Thornton Law firm likely used a phony program to repay partners for political donations, but the case was dismissed after commissioners deadlocked on whether to pursue it.
FEC staff lawyers found extensive evidence that Thornton, a major supporter of the Democratic Party and its candidates, illegally reimbursed partners for more than a million dollars in donations, according to their 33-page report on the case.
But the commission itself voted 2 to 2 along party lines — a tie vote, which dismisses the complaint instead of opening a full-scale investigation. The decision was released Friday.
Now, the group that filed the complaint against Thornton, the Campaign Legal Center, is considering pursuing the matter in federal court.
“It is another example of the FEC failing to enforce the laws they’re charged with administering,” said Brendan Fischer, director of the center’s Federal Reform Program.
“The evidence laid out in our complaint provided compelling reasons for the agency to formally pursue the matter and the FEC staff attorneys agreed. Despite the fact that the FEC’s professional staff attorneys recommended that they pursue this matter, the ideological divide on the part of the commissioners stopped it from going further.”
The two Republican commissioners who voted against a full-scale investigation are expected to release a statement explaining their vote.
Thornton Law released a statement expressing gratitude that the case is closed: “After fully cooperating with the FEC for over 2½ years, we are grateful the commission voted to close the matter.”
The Globe and the Washington, D.C.-based Center for Responsive Politics revealed Thornton’s internal bonus system in October 2016, noting that top attorneys at the firm frequently received “bonus” checks that exactly matched their political donations. That suggested the firm paid for the donations, not the individual lawyers, an arrangement that would violate the law.
The FEC chairman, who is a Democrat, along with a second commissioner who is an Independent, voted to proceed with a broader investigation, but they were blocked by the Republicans. Ironically, Thornton Law, now led by former assistant House majority leader Garrett Bradley, donated almost exclusively to Democrats. Campaign finance experts said the Republicans have been working to weaken the FEC’s authority.
There are six seats on the commission, but two are vacant. Four yes votes are required to pursue cases. Commissioners are nominated by the president for six-year terms and confirmed by the Senate.
FEC chairwoman Ellen L. Weintraub called the matter “sadly, one of a long list of cases where the commission has been unable to enforce the laws because of a split vote, over the objections of our office of general counsel.”
“In every case, it doesn’t matter whether Democrats or Republicans are subject of the complaint, the Democrats want to enforce the law and the Republicans don’t. It’s an ideological opposition to enforcing the law,” she told the Globe.
She said the Campaign Legal Center can sue the agency and ask a judge to find the decision contrary to law. However, she added, “I don’t think it’s a good situation when we have to rely on private citizens to sue us to enforce the law. I’m not real happy about it.”
Almost as soon as the Globe story was published, politicians began giving back donations from Thornton Law. Hillary Clinton, Senator Ed Markey, Representative Joseph Kennedy III, and Boston Mayor Martin J. Walsh all returned their donations or contributed an equal amount to charity or the US Treasury.
Soon after, the Campaign Legal Center filed its complaint against Thornton.
The FEC lawyers found the Thornton lawyers — and the law firm itself — likely violated the law by disguising the true source of the donations. By collecting donations for candidates from several partners at a time, the firm greatly exceeded the campaign finance limits.
For example, the FEC lawyers found, Michael Thornton, his wife, Amy, David Strouss, and Bradley donated a total of $18,100 to Kennedy — $12,900 more than the legal limit if the firm had donated alone.
In addition, individual lawyers violated the law because they put their names on donations that actually came from the firm.
Lawyers for Thornton Law have insisted the donations were legal because the bonuses came from each partner’s own “capital” account, made up of their own equity in the firm.
But the FEC lawyers disputed the contention, saying the capital accounts were not the partners’ money to use freely and the fact that the reimbursed donations were labeled “bonuses” suggested “the partners assumed the payments were extra compensation drawn from partnership accounts” and not their own accounts.
Thornton Law is also a party in a longstanding dispute concerning alleged overbilling by the firm and two others, as well as alleged misconduct by Bradley.
A special master last May found that Thornton and two out-of-state firms, Labaton Sucharow of New York and Lieff Cabraser of San Francisco, submitted inflated bills to a federal judge to justify $75 million in attorney’s fees in a class action settlement with State Street Bank in Boston.
US District Court Judge Mark L. Wolf ordered the investigation following a Globe report about stratospheric legal bills filed in the case, including more than $200,000 to Bradley’s brother, a criminal defense lawyer in Quincy.
The special master, retired federal judge Gerald Rosen, recommended that the three law firms be required to repay more than $10 million to clients and he called for special sanctions for Thornton because Bradley filed “palpably false” statements in court.
Lawyers for the firms said Rosen’s findings were “riddled with factual and legal mistakes” and have filed objections with Wolf, who has not yet ruled on the special master’s recommendations even though he has had all the filings for months.
At the state level, the Massachusetts Office of Campaign and Political Finance previously concluded that Thornton may have violated election laws by concealing the true source of $175,000 in donations to state and local candidates. However, Attorney General Maura Healey referred the case to Essex District Attorney Jonathan Blodgett, who did not find “sufficient evidence” that a crime had been committed.
If the Campaign Legal Center appeals the FEC decision, a judge could order the agency to reopen the case.
Andrea Estes can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.