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Illegal trial lawyer donations lift Dem finances

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Thornton's partners contributed heavily to Sen. Elizabeth Warren (who has ironically made herself the champion against what she depicts as predatory corporations). (AP Photo/Evan Vucci)

The Boston Globe reported last weekend that partners of a personal injury law firm in Boston were paid bonuses corresponding exactly to political contributions they made to Democrats.

This scheme appears to be completely illegal. People have gone to prison for doing this, but the firm appears to have taken that risk and tried to skew public policy to enrich themselves and their fellow trial lawyers.

Here's how the scheme worked: Personal injury lawyers at the Thornton Law Firm, which specializes in asbestos litigation, got full reimbursements within 10 days of contributing to Democratic Senate candidates who support laws that make it easier and more profitable to file lawsuits, and shield unethical trial lawyers from scrutiny.

This may not be the only law firm doing this, for many trial lawyers give generously to Democrats. Thornton just happened to be the one that the Globe and Center for Responsive Politics caught.

The newspaper discovered 280 cases in which so-called bonus payments to partners were exactly equal to political contributions they had just made to federal candidates, for a total of $1.4 million.

The reason this is forbidden by federal law is that it would allow all other campaign finance laws to be sidestepped. It would allow corporations to make illegal direct contributions to candidates. A massive conglomerate could reimburse its thousands of employees for any contributions they gave individually to politicians who espoused policies that the conglomerate liked.

Such schemes allow wealthy donors to exceed their legal contribution limit. If Paul can reimburse Peter and Mary for their contributions to Democratic political action committees and candidates, then he can effectively contribute three times the legal limit.

Finally, such schemes defeat the transparency that campaign finance law provides. They structure the donation so the "real" donor, the one providing the money, is not listed in campaign finance filings.

Thornton's partners contributed heavily to Sens. Elizabeth Warren (who has ironically made herself the champion against what she depicts as predatory corporations) and Harry Reid, the Obama-Biden presidential ticket, the Democratic Party, and numerous other Democratic candidates for state and federal office, in addition to super PACs and other Democratic groups from 2010 to 2014. They were routinely reimbursed for it. (The only Republican to receive money from the firm's partners is Sen. Lindsey Graham, a former trial lawyer himself.)

This scheme was particularly brazen because the bonus checks, some of which were obtained by the Globe, specifically said that the bonuses were reimbursements for political contributions.

The scheme helped a particularly greedy special interest group at the expense of the broader economy, and often at the expense of their own clients.

For example, the firm used the reimbursement scheme to funnel $52,000 to Sen. Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., who helped kill the Furthering Asbestos Claim Transparency Act in the Senate Judiciary Committee. That bill would have put an end to a recently uncovered scheme in which trial lawyers coached clients to lie, cheated, double-dipped and depleted the bankruptcy trusts from which many sick patients are eligible to receive compensation. Michael Thornton, the firm's co-founder, has coordinated closely with the trial lawyers' trade group, the American Association for Justice, to give and raise money to prevent much-needed legal reforms.

Voters should be especially skeptical when Democrats pretend to represent the little guy against special interests. They are all, from Elizabeth Warren to Hillary Clinton, neck-deep in special interest money. In this case, the special interest was especially sleazy, but there are doubtless plenty of similarly grubby sources of filthy lucre financing the Democrats. And they complain of "dark money" financing Republicans. "When they go low, we go high" — yeah, right.

Some of the candidates who have received Thornton contributions are already returning them. All the rest should do so immediately.