Federal prosecutors have launched a grand jury investigation into alleged illegal political donations made by a Boston law firm, according to reports.
The donations include tens of thousands of dollars to Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC), whose office said he will return the money if the law firm’s three principals are convicted of making illegal donations.
According to the Center for Responsive Politics, which along with the Boston Globe broke the story of the alleged illegal contributions, the Department of Justice has opened an investigation.
This follows a separate formal complaint to Federal Election Commission by the Washington D.C.-based Campaign Legal Center.
Graham was the only Republican politician to receive donations from the firm, which is one of the most aggressive in pursuing asbestos litigation nationwide.
From 2010 through 2014, Michael Thornton, his wife, and his partners, Garrett Bradley and David Strouss, are alleged to have donated $1.6 million. The lawyers received $1.4 million listed as “bonuses” in Thornton Law Firm records. More than 280 of the contributions precisely matched bonuses that were paid within 10 days.
Brian Kelly, an ex-prosecutor hired by Thornton to respond to the allegations, told the CRP and the Globe the bonuses should not have been called bonuses at all because they were paid from the lawyers’ own money. He said an accountant deducted the payments from their equity, or ownership, in the firm.
The Thornton Law Firm also opposed a bill introduced 10 years ago that would have shifted those cases from being decided in courts to a trust fund-based system.
Graham received $62,800 from the firm over the span of 10 years, according to an investigation by the Boston Globe and the Center for Responsive Politics. The senator helped to kill the trust fund bill by persuading some Republicans to vote against it in February 2006, the newspaper report said.
“Sen. Graham's campaign has disgorged contributions from individuals convicted of making illegal donations,” spokesman Kevin Bishop told Palmetto Business Daily after the story broke. “It's a long-time policy still in effect today.”
Asked whether Graham should announce he intends to return the money, Brendan Fisher, the Campaign Legal Center's associate counsel, was reluctant to take a position. At least 19 politicians, including Hillary Clinton, and one campaign committee member, have returned donations to the firm.
Fisher said now that the Department of Justice appears to have launched an investigation, there are potential criminal charges that extend beyond his center’s FEC complaint.
Many politicians have returned their contributions, or announced an intention to do so, because “they do not want to be associated with this organization that may have given illegal” donations," Fisher told Palmetto Business Daily. “Lindsey Graham may know the FEC takes a very long time to resolve cases.”
Fisher cited the case of former Rep. Aaron Schock (R-IL), who faced a complaint from the center dating back to 2012. It was a straightforward violation, Fisher said, but it was only resolved last month, with the FEC finding the ex-Congressman guilty and fining him $10,000.