A federal grand jury in Washington took testimony last year about then-U.S. Labor Secretary Hilda Solis' role in a 2012 fundraiser for President Obama's reelection, according to a woman who said she appeared before the panel.
Whittier resident Rebecca Zapanta, who is prominent in Latino political and philanthropic circles, told The Times she was summoned to testify in June about telephone conversations she had with Solis, now a leading candidate for an open seat on the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors.
The status of the probe isn't clear. A campaign spokesman has said Solis acted properly. But her campaign did not respond Tuesday to requests for comment. Solis has declined requests for an interview about the federal inquiry.
Zapanta's statements are the first public indication that a grand jury has been used as part of the investigation. She said she and Solis are close friends and her conversations with the then-Cabinet member were innocent, involving personal and family matters. She said she believed the investigation was "silly" and "evil."
"How dare they pick on a beautiful, wonderful lady who helps the community?" she said.
The Times reported last month that the FBI had made inquiries related to Solis' participation in the fundraiser at La Fonda Supper Club in Los Angeles.
Solis was the keynote speaker, and federal authorities appear to have been focusing on phone calls she made prior to the event. Last May, agents questioned state Sen. Kevin de León (D-Los Angeles) about a call from Solis asking him to support the fundraiser, according to two people familiar that aspect of the probe, who spoke on condition of anonymity.
De León has declined to comment and campaign reports show he did not contribute to the La Fonda event. Solis' campaign spokesmen have said the FBI met with her in November 2012, shortly before she resigned from the Obama Cabinet. Officials with the FBI, U.S. Justice Department and White House have declined to comment or did not respond to interview requests.
Cabinet members and other federal officials may appear at fundraisers, but a law known as the Hatch Act prohibits them from soliciting campaign money. Experts have said the FBI generally isn't involved in Hatch Act investigations.
Zapanta, who has been photographed accompanying Solis to a White House state dinner, said she attended the La Fonda fundraiser with her husband, Richard Zapanta, an orthopedic surgeon who has made political contributions, including $1,000 to Obama's reelection drive.
Zapanta said FBI agents had come to her house twice last spring when she was out, so she requested they deliver a subpoena to her attorney. Solis did not ask her to contribute to the fundraiser, and she told that to the grand jury, Zapanta said.
She recalled federal authorities had phone records and asked about the length and frequency of conversations she and Solis had.
Solis' supporters defended her and predict she will easily win the election to replace termed-out Supervisor Gloria Molina, who represents heavily Democratic central and eastern areas of the county.
Los Angeles County Democratic Party Chairman Eric Bauman said Solis was expected to easily win the party's endorsement later this month. He said he hadn't discussed the investigation with Solis but has "always known her to be above board and pretty straightforward.
"I'm relatively certain that she acted in a way that she believed was legal," he said.