Former U.S. Labor Secretary Hilda Solis, the front-runner for an open seat on the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors, faced a federal inquiry concerning her involvement in a fundraiser for President Obama, according to two sources familiar with the case.
In response to questions from The Times, Solis campaign consultant Parke Skelton said Friday she hired a Washington, D.C., law firm in 2012, her final year as Labor secretary, "to address legal issues concerning her role in a fundraising event" at a Los Angeles supper club. Skelton said Solis' participation in the Obama fundraiser was "perfectly proper."
Solis disclosed her legal bill in federal financial disclosure forms she filed last February, shortly after she left the Obama Cabinet. The forms show she owed the Sidley Austin firm between $50,001 and $100,000 for "legal advice."
Several months later, an FBI agent questioned state Sen. Kevin de León (D-Los Angeles) about whether Solis had solicited his support for the fundraiser, according to two sources familiar with the inquiry. Both requested anonymity because they are not authorized to speak about the case.
A De León spokesman said the senator had no comment. Campaign disclosure filings show De León did not contribute to the Obama campaign.
The fundraiser was held in March 2012 at La Fonda and focused on tapping support in the Latino community for the president's reelection. Solis got top billing on Facebook pages and websites promoting the event, which also promised a performance by singer-songwriter Gustavo Galindo.
Federal law forbids Cabinet members from directly raising campaign money, although they generally are allowed to attend and give speeches at fundraisers.
The status of the FBI probe could not be determined, and a FBI spokeswoman declined to comment.
In an emailed statement Friday, Skelton said, "Secretary Solis, like other members of this administration and those previous, was permitted under the applicable rules to engage in political activities during the President's re-election efforts. Secretary Solis strongly believes that her participation in the La Fonda event was perfectly proper."
The Solis campaign initially declined to discuss why she needed legal help, saying it was a matter of attorney-client privilege.
The disclosure forms do not indicate precisely when Solis incurred the Sidley Austin debt or whether she repaid it.
Skelton said he could not immediately answer other questions about the matter.
Richard Painter, a University of Minnesota law professor who once advised incoming Cabinet members about ethics rules during the George W. Bush administration, said a law known as the Hatch Act prohibits them from soliciting campaign donations.
He said Cabinet members "can speak at a fundraiser in a personal capacity, but they cannot ask people for money."
In a letter announcing her resignation as Labor secretary, Solis said she "decided to begin a new future, and return to the people and places I love and that have inspired and shaped my life."
At the time, there were expectations that Solis would run for the supervisor seat being vacated by Gloria Molina, perhaps as the first step toward statewide office. In recent months, Solis has been locking up early endorsements from labor groups that view her as a natural ally.
No other high-profile candidate has entered the race.
Molina is relinquishing the seat, which is anchored on the Eastside, because of term limits.