Did You Miss The 'Straw Donor' Political Fundraising Scandal? How About That 'Vetting Judges' Gaff?

Did You Miss The 'Straw Donor' Political Fundraising Scandal? How About That 'Vetting Judges' Gaff?
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With all the leaked emails, protests and competing allegations, nobody would blame you for missing a major scandal or two this election season – and mini-scandals have no chance of breaking through the background noise. So let me keep you up-to-date on a couple you might have missed.

In a normal election year, a bombshell story that a well-connected Boston law firm paid “bonuses” to apparently directly reimburse employees for political donations (an illegal practice known as creating “straw donors”) would have been the stuff of a national money-in-politics conversation. Such practices allow companies to avoid contribution limits by donating via employees and just paying them back.

The story by The Boston Globe’s Spotlight investigative team and the Center for Responsive Politics, better known for its opensecrets.com website, focused on the Thornton Law Firm, a trial lawyer firm perhaps best known for asbestos lawsuits.

The report identified the Thornton firm as “… one of the most reliable stops on the Democratic fundraising circuit, a law firm that pours millions into the coffers of the party and its politicians” and also noted that the “payback” system “… helped make Thornton the 11th-ranked law firm nationally for political contributions in 2014, according to data analyzed by the Center, even though the firm is not among the 100 biggest in Massachusetts, much less the U.S.”

The firm was saying it did nothing illegal and the reporters pointed out that the people receiving the now-tainted funds didn’t seem to know about any potential straw-donor program. Even so, the story went national and by the end of the week nearly two dozen politicians implicated in the story were scrambling to return funds; authorities are no doubt interested and a Washington D.C.-based watchdog group has already filed a formal complaint with the Federal Election Commission, the FEC.

Meanwhile, another asbestos-focused attorney was under a different sort of spotlight at The Washington Post. The paper reported that Dallas plaintiffs attorney Lisa Blue Baron learned “the hard way” that you don’t talk about working in a new administration, especially not before that administration actually exists.

The Post wrote that “… Baron, a prominent Democratic donor, attended a conference for tort attorneys in Las Vegas last week, and caught the attention of a reporter when she said she was interviewing with Hillary Clinton’s transition team for her White House 'dream job.'” The job? Helping to vet federal judges, Baron said.

That would be big news in the civil litigation world and especially bad news for corporate defense firms – Baron is well known and has served as president of the American Association for Justice, the plaintiff’s attorney trade association. But, as the Post noted, “… readers may be more familiar with her husband, who served as finance chair of John Edwards’ 2008 presidential campaign and spent $200,000 to support Edwards’ mistress, Rielle Hunter, and hide her from the media."

Lisa Blue Baron, contacted by The Post, said she misspoke at that conference: “I have not interviewed for any position,” Baron wrote in an email. “I met with a member of the transition team to voice my concerns about federal judicial vacancies,” she wrote. “To the best of my knowledge, the transition team is not interviewing candidates for any positions. They have not reached out to me regarding any job opportunities.”

Post writer Elise Tieback, in the PowerPost blog, also backgrounded that “… Baron and her late husband, Fred, have had a long history with the Clintons. As longtime party donors, they were guests of the family at the White House and Camp David in the ’90s, according to the Dallas Morning News. Lisa Baron hosted a fundraiser for Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign in May.”

In this political season, even millions of dollars in questionable donations and news that a leading fundraiser bragged about vetting federal judges is second tier news. Yet, you can bet that both are stories that, unlike many others, will hang around after Tuesday’s election is long over.

Sara Corcoran Warner is publisher of the National Courts Monitor website, "Your Daily Ration of Civil Justice Rationing," and a frequent commentator on national legal policy and civil courts issues.

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