PROVIDENCE, R.I.—Democratic gubernatorial candidate Frank Caprio has accepted roughly $50,000 in political contributions from lawyers at a Boston law firm that was referred dozens of clients from a deadly Rhode Island nightclub fire by the law firm of Caprio's family.
At least 20 lawyers with Cooley Manion Jones, which is making millions of dollars from its involvement in the case, have contributed to Caprio between 2005 and 2010. Several attorneys have annually donated $1,000, the maximum allowed under state law. One partner says he's hosted fundraisers for Caprio and expects to continue to do so, and wives of several of the lawyers have also contributed the maximum amount.
The contributions were made in the years after Caprio & Caprio referred the clients to Cooley Manion Jones, which has an office in the Caprios' building. The firm is one of the primary ones handling lawsuits from from the February 2003 fire at The Station nightclub, and the clients referred by the Caprio firm are just a portion of the more than 300 people who sued.
Lawyers at both firms said there was nothing improper about either the referrals or the political contributions, saying they reflected a long-standing personal and professional relationship and that the referrals were in no way contingent on financial support for Caprio's candidacy. Caprio said he saw no reason to return the money.
"There's no quid pro quo. There never was. There never would be. There's no way," said Patrick Jones, the firm's lead lawyer in the nightclub fire cases. Jones says he's hosted fundraisers for Caprio, and state campaign finance records show he's personally given $5,000 to Caprio since 2005.
Lawyers routinely contribute to candidates they support, but what's striking in this case is the breadth of participation -- all partners listed on the website gave money -- the size of contributions and the firm's minimal record of involvement in local elections.
Though the firm's lawyers have supported Democratic members of Rhode Island's congressional delegation in federal races, only about a half dozen other candidates in statewide and local elections have received money from Cooley Manion Jones attorneys -- and one is Caprio's brother David, a former state representative, according to state records.
Frank Caprio, who leads the four-person governor's race in fundraising, said in an interview he was grateful for the support and saw no reason to return the contributions.
"These are people that are supporting me because they agree with my vision for the future of Rhode Island," Caprio said.
Caprio & Caprio includes Frank Caprio's father, his second cousin Anthony Caprio and David Caprio as an independent contractor. Frank Caprio left the firm before becoming general treasurer in 2006.
Anthony Caprio said he referred roughly 30 clients to the firm because of its experience in handling wrongful death and complicated catastrophic personal-injury cases.
Caprio said he met Jones about 20 years ago after referring a medical malpractice case to him at the recommendation of a lawyer friend and has since been friends with him and other lawyers at the firm.
"When we have cases that need a certain expertise, Pat Jones is the guy that we go to, and he has tremendous people working for him," he said.
More than 300 people sued after the fire, which killed 100 people, injured more than 200 others and began when a rock band's pyrotechnics set ablaze cheap foam used as soundproofing.
The dozens of people and companies that were sued ultimately agreed to settle for $176 million. Of that amount, about $59 million will be divided among multiple law firms representing the fire survivors and victims' relatives.
Anthony Caprio said his firm has received $1.7 million, or half the fees recovered by Cooley Manion Jones for their collective clients. Jones, who said the clients referred by Caprio represented fewer than half of his total clients in the case, would not say exactly how much his firm had made from the case but that it was well into the millions.
Frank Caprio says he never had any fire clients or involvement in the case. In January, his office announced that it would not handle appeals from fire victims who are directed to repay a state-run crime compensation fund, which is administered by Caprio's office.
Caprio's leading opponent, independent Lincoln Chafee, has cast himself as an independent thinker while trying to paint Caprio as overly beholden to his supporters, a charge Caprio denies.
A recent campaign ad highlighted Caprio's return last year of roughly $60,000 in campaign contributions, mostly from lawyers and financial specialists seeking state business under Caprio's control. Caprio returned the donations after being questioned by The Providence Journal, saying he wanted to avoid an appearance of impropriety.
The Journal also reported last week that Caprio's father, the chairman of the Board of Governors for Higher Education, helped the wife of Vincent Mesolella, a former state representative who hosted a fundraiser for Caprio, get a job at the Community College of Rhode Island by forwarding her resume.
Jones said he supports the entire Caprio family -- not just Frank -- and that the Caprios were welcoming to him when he opened an office in Providence. He said the Caprios had referred clients to him well before the Station nightclub case, and that he has a long record of supporting candidates across the country he likes.
He added that his firm have neither solicited nor performed any work for the state.
"This is purely an exercise of the right to financially support our friends and people we believe stand for the things we believe in and will make good public servants," Jones said.
Associated Press Writer Michelle R. Smith contributed to this report.