Missouri Democratic U.S. Senate candidate Jason Kander’s campaign said Monday it would write a $25,000 check to the U.S. Treasury after a report surfaced that it received contributions from a law firm that handed out bonuses that may have illegally obscured the source of donations.
Kander received $25,000 from nine members of the Thornton law firm all on May 14, 2015, at a fundraiser he attended in Boston. Data compiled by the Center for Responsive Politics show money from Thornton employees represented the fourth-largest group of contributors to Kander’s run for the Senate.
The contributions are distinct within Kander’s war chest because they represent an apparent attempt by donors to skirt federal rules designed to limit the size of contributions and make their sources obvious.
In another way, they reflect a more ordinary pattern — that despite Kander’s promises of an outsider offering a new flavor of politics, he draws money from the same sources that have propelled Democrats to office for decades.
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The legal profession vastly outdistances any other industry on the Kander ledger, pouring more than $1.3 million into his campaign.
Meantime, Democratic Party groups have contributed directly to his campaign and spent more than $6 million independently to boost his election prospects. Likewise, organized labor groups have given to his campaign and spent more than $2 million independently in an effort to propel him past Republican incumbent Roy Blunt.
“Candidates usually get money from sources they’re already sympathetic to,” said John Hibbing, a University of Nebraska professor who’s studied public attitudes toward Congress. “I assume people giving him money think that he’s going to be on their side … or at least that he’ll be more to their liking than the other guy.”
Hibbing stresses that research shows no hard evidence that senators reward money with votes, rather that donations tend to flow from groups that identify like-thinking politicians. Money from Democratic leadership groups doesn’t lock in party-line votes, especially from red state senators.
Still, Republican critics look at Kander’s contributors and see just another politician.
“The whole premise of Jason Kander’s campaign that he’s somehow not a hardened political insider is the height of phoniness,” said John Hancock, head of the Missouri GOP.
Experts often say that few clues predict how a member of Congress will vote better than the source of their donations. Contributors are betting their money they’ve found allies.
Over the weekend, a story in The Boston Globe detailed a pattern at the Thornton firm whose employees gave Kander $25,000. The story said the law firm’s bonuses coincided with political contributions made by employees to a number of prominent Democrats and Democratic campaign committees.
Compensating individuals for their political contributions is broadly seen as illegal. It can disguise the true source of campaign dollars and pose an end run around federal limits on how much one person is allowed to donate.
Viveca Novak, spokeswoman for the Center for Responsive Politics and a co-author of the Globe report, said Thornton at times handed out same-day bonuses to employees who made political contributions. It was unclear whether that was the practice in 2015.
But she said the donations to the Kander campaign fit “a pattern of a lot of these contributions. The firm would have breakfasts or luncheons where politicians from around the country would come in and speak for a few minutes and would collect contributions that would all show up as having been collected on the same day. … For years the partners at the firm were getting bonuses in the exact amounts and within days of their contributions.”
Other Democratic candidates for the Senate also have announced they’re unloading donations from Thornton, including Katie McGinty of Pennsylvania, Russ Feingold of Wisconsin, Maggie Hassan in New Hampshire and Patrick Murphy of Florida.
The Boston-based firm specializes in mesothelioma cases. Mesothelioma is a disease tied to inhaling asbestos. It represents a particularly lucrative field for personal injury attorneys because there’s no dispute about the link.
Once a lawyer can establish a person was exposed to asbestos, typically on the job, large awards are common and typically a third of that amount goes to legal fees. On Google’s AdWords program, mesothelioma has long been one of the most expensive words to purchase because it can recruit particularly valuable clients to law firms.
Yet that stream of income has been threatened for about 10 years after then-President George W. Bush and others in Washington moved to steer victims of asbestos inhalation to a national trust fund. Still debated in Congress, such a change would effectively take millions in fees away from lawyers who seek clients for their class action mesothelioma lawsuits.
Asked about the donations Monday morning, Kander campaign communications director Chris Hayden said in an email: “As soon as we became aware of this situation yesterday” —Sunday — “we decided to write a check equivalent to what employees at the firm had contributed to the campaign, $25,000, to the United States Treasury.”
Where does Kander, a lawyer, stand on proposed changes in mesothelioma cases?
“Jason,” Hayden wrote, “has yet to see a proposal from Congress that he supports.” Pressed on that response, the Kander spokesman appeared to support a position that would keep the current system of class action lawsuits for mesothelioma cases intact.
“Unlike Senator Blunt,” Hayden wrote in follow-up email, “Jason believes the 7th Amendment right to a civil trial is a right every American deserves. Senator Blunt might want to pick and choose what parts of the Constitution are important, but Jason believes Congress should respect the entire document.”
Polls suggest Kander is locked in a tight race against Blunt.
The Missouri Republican Party issued a news release Monday morning saying Kander had been the beneficiary of an “illegal campaign fundraising scheme.” The National Republican Senatorial Committee said Kander’s campaign was “funded by dirty insider contributions. … (H)e’s the beneficiary of a shady straw donor scheme.”
An analysis by the Center for Responsive Politics shows Kander also took in $117,000 from employees of Simmons Hanly Conroy, a national law firm based in Illinois specializing in mesothelioma cases. That law firm represented, by far, the most contributions from a single employer to Kander. Cooney & Conway, another mesothelioma specialist, added $14,500.
People from another dozen law firms, most specializing in representing plaintiffs in personal injury and product liability cases, represent $356,340 of Kander’s take.
Speaking about political contributions broadly, Michael J. Malbin, the executive director of the non-partisan Campaign Finance Institute, said money reveals motivation.
“If a large number of people from the same company or the same law firm gave money in a highly competitive race like this,” he said, “then they think it’s probably better for their law firm or their company.”
While Kander has received scores of large donations, his campaign drew a larger portion of small contributions than Blunt’s.
Kander’s committee took 17 percent of its money in smaller gifts, 68 percent in large contributions from individuals and 6 percent from political action committees. Blunt drew 3 percent in small gifts, 58 percent in large donations from individuals and 34 percent from PACs.
The contributions given to Kander’s Senate race continue a trend of donors who backed his elections to the Missouri House in 2008 and 2010 and as Missouri secretary of state in 2012. In that last state race, he got $1,000 from a tow truck operator, but the list of high-dollar donations was dominated by attorneys and unions.
While in the Missouri House, he was part of an overwhelmingly outnumbered Democratic minority with little prospect that bills he sponsored could pass. Most of the legislation he introduced centered on veterans issues and legislative ethics.
Kander voted against bills that would have made it difficult to sue co-workers for on-the-job injuries and bills that would have made it harder to file lawsuits against employers in occupational disease cases — the sort of position taken by plaintiffs’ attorneys helping to bankroll his Senate race.
The Center for Responsive Politics shows Kander got at least $124,000 from lobbyists. People working in securities and investments chipped in about $204,000, those in education gave more than $182,000 and individuals working in printing and publishing added almost $141,000.
Employees of the University of Missouri made up the second largest group of contributions, giving Kander more than $35,000. Employees of Kansas City-based Sosland Publishing Co., which produces several print and online publications including Milling & Baking News and Food Business News, ranked third on his list by donating slightly over $25,000.
Kander also took money from a variety of ideological political action committees that reflect his positions. NARAL Pro-Choice American PAC, the campaign contributions limit group End Citizens United PAC, the League of Conservation Voters, Minnesota Sen. Al Franken’s liberal Midwest Values PAC, the climate change-focused Oceans PAC, the pro-Israel St. Louisans for Better Government PAC and the left-leaning Vote Vets PAC all gave the maximum $5,000, or nearly that amount, allowed by federal law.
He’s also received help from a wealthy uncle, John Kander, half of the songwriting team Kander and Ebb that created Broadway hits such as “Cabaret” and “Chicago.” He gave $20,500 to Jason Kander toward his secretary of state race — races for state office in Missouri face no contribution limits — and the maximum $5,400 allowed by an individual for his Senate race.