How does a law firm in Boston get to be the 11th-biggest law-firm contributor to Democrats nationwide when it’s not even among the 100 largest law firms in its own town? A federal grand jury has begun to ask that very question about Thornton Law Firm. Two sources tell the Boston Globe that an indictment would make this the biggest “straw donor” case ever prosecuted:

Federal prosecutors in Boston have opened a grand jury investigation into potentially illegal campaign contributions from lawyers at the Thornton Law Firm, a leading donor to Democrats around the country, according to two people familiar with the probe.

The reason for their dedication to Democrats, according to the Globe, was to fight tort reform that could have derailed their particular gravy train:

If the grand jury indicts the firm and its lawyers, Thornton could be the biggest so-called “straw donor” case ever brought nationwide. Between 2010 and 2014 alone, lawyers for the firm, which specializes in asbestos cases, donated $3.4 million to candidates and the Democratic Party, especially to Senate candidates who opposed overhauling the asbestos litigation system.

“There are serious penalties for these violations,” said Brett Kappel, a campaign finance lawyer in Washington, D.C. “Here you potentially have multiple violations of the prohibition on contributions in the name of another, each one of which would be separately charged.”

Violations involving straw donations of $25,000 or more could bring a sentence of five years in prison for each count, Kappel said.

It’s worth considering the amount of cash that Thornton Law Firm invested in Democrats. They apparently found the asbestos litigation industry lucrative enough (for lawyers) to drop over three million dollars to prevent any kind of class-action reform. At $400 an hour, that equates to 8500 billable hours of donations, before taxes — enough to keep one lawyer busy for four years. Democrats have responded by holding the line on tort reform, so at least for the moment, Thornton Law has invested well … assuming their senior partners can stay out of bankruptcy, or prison.

Two weeks ago, the Globe reported that the FBI had begun an investigation into Thornton’s donation/bonus program operation. The grand jury probe was initiated by the US Attorney’s office in Massachusetts, headed by Carmen Ortiz. It’s not clear whether Ortiz initiated this off of the FBI probe, or whether the Department of Justice ran its own independent investigation into the alleged straw-donor operation, but the Globe’s reporting hints that it might be separate, calling the DoJ “one of three agencies” investigating the matter. The FEC has also opened an investigation, but that would be the least worrisome to Thornton Law, as it would only involve civil penalties. A grand jury means the potential for prison, assuming they recommend an indictment.

Democrats have shed their Thornton Law donations, including an all-star list of the Party Of The Little Guy: Hillary Clinton, Elizabeth Warren, and Rep. Patrick Murphy, who lost his Senate race against Marco Rubio shortly after this story broke. But the biggest hit may be felt in 2018, the Globe reports. The Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee (DSCC) has already returned $267,000 in Thornton Law donations, but the Globe found that the DSCC had received $1.5 million from the firm’s attorneys over the last decade. That will sting when it comes time to defend 10 Trump states in the next midterms, as will the loss of a major donor down the line, too.

For their part, Thornton insists that their bonus system was entirely legal, and that it was blessed as such by outside counsel. Will that hold water with the DoJ? It seems doubtful, especially since Thornton Law is a law firm itself, and should be reasonably assumed to have some familiarity with the law. If nothing else, this reaffirms that tort reform is not just a necessity in its own right, but also to help drain the swamp of Washington politics.

Update: “11th biggest contributor” should be “11th biggest law-firm contributor”. I’ve fixed it above.