Allegations that former U.S. Labor Secretary Hilda Solis, currently a candidate for Los Angeles County supervisor, solicited subordinates to help raise money for President Barack Obama's reelection campaign triggered a criminal investigation of her fundraising efforts, according to interviews and a federal document related to the case.
A letter sent last year to Solis by the U.S. Office of Special Counsel, an independent agency that investigates allegations of administrative violations of fundraising rules by federal officials, said it began an inquiry after receiving a complaint that Solis had solicited a donation from a Labor Department employee. According to the letter, the complaint alleged that in March 2012, Solis "left a voicemail message on a subordinate employee's government-issued Blackberry in which you asked the employee to contribute toward and assist with organizing others to attend a fundraiser for the President's reelection campaign."
Solis has declined to comment on the investigation, but a spokesman reiterated Friday that she believes she has done nothing wrong.
The January 2013 letter, which was reviewed by The Times, noted that Solis had resigned from her federal position earlier that month. As a result, the office said it was closing its inquiry into possible violations of the Hatch Act, which prohibits certain political activities by federal workers and imposes administrative penalties. The letter said the administrative inquiry could be reopened if Solis takes an executive branch job in the federal government.
Four months before the letter was sent, the Office of Special Counsel referred the case to the U.S. Justice Department for a possible criminal investigation, focusing on an Obama fundraiser in Los Angeles, according to two sources familiar with the probe who spoke on the condition of anonymity due to the sensitivity of the matter.
The sources said the Office of Special Counsel turned over its findings from witness interviews and a review of hundreds of pages of documents. Allegations that Solis solicited donations from subordinates for the Obama fundraiser or their assistance in staging the event were a key factor in referring the case to criminal investigators, according to the sources.
Representatives of the counsel's office and the Justice Department declined to comment Friday. The Times reported earlier this year that the FBI was investigating Solis' role in the March 2012 fundraiser at La Fonda restaurant, a probe that continued months after the counsel's office closed its inquiry.
Solis' campaign acknowledged she had a "cordial" meeting with the FBI in November 2012. The Times also reported that sources said the FBI interviewed state Sen. Kevin de León (D-Los Angeles) last spring about a telephone call he received from Solis asking him to support the fundraiser. In addition, Rebecca Zapanta, a Solis friend who attended the event, said she was questioned in June before a grand jury in Washington about her phone conversations with Solis.
An FBI spokeswoman in Washington declined Friday to say whether the investigation is ongoing.
Solis' campaign consultant, Steve Barkan, said Friday that Solis "believes that her participation in the 2012 La Fonda event was proper and does not believe that she has done anything illegal or improper." He declined to comment on the specific allegations in the letter. In a recent interview, Solis said she was unsure of the status of the investigation, but that her resignation from the Cabinet was not related to the inquiry.
"In any administration after four years when … reelection occurs, you see many Cabinet members leave and come back to what they were doing or new ventures," she said. "I've always retained the thought that I was always going to come home, and that's where my heart lies."
Solis, who served in the state Legislature and Congress prior to her appointment to the Cabinet, is running for an eastern Los Angeles County seat being vacated by Supervisor Gloria Molina and is heavily favored to win over her two lesser-known opponents. Supporters have said they believe in Solis' integrity and don't believe she would knowingly break the law.
Molina announced her endorsement of Solis on Thursday, praising her dedication to service and "grass-roots history in our county as one of our champions." The supervisor, through a spokeswoman, declined to comment Friday.
Times staff writer Rich Simon contributed to this story.