A prominent Los Angeles attorney and employees from his law firm are under investigation on suspicion of laundering contributions to James K. Hahn's mayoral campaign, according to sources close to the case.
Pierce O'Donnell, a well-regarded trial attorney who has represented such high-profile clients as MGM and Pfizer Inc., allegedly asked friends and associates to contribute to Hahn's campaign and then reimbursed them out of his own pocket -- a violation of city and state campaign laws, sources said.
The Los Angeles Ethics Commission and the Los Angeles County district attorney's office are jointly investigating the allegations, sources confirmed. City records show that donors associated with O'Donnell's law firm contributed a total of more than $20,000 to Hahn's campaign in 2000 and 2001.
One source close to the case said that the district attorney's office filed a criminal complaint last week in connection with the case but that the document was sealed by the court because O'Donnell was in the middle of a trial and the judge did not want news of the complaint to affect those proceedings. That trial concluded Wednesday, and the complaint was expected to be unsealed today, the source said.
David Demerjian, the head deputy in charge of the district attorney's public integrity division, declined to confirm whether there was an investigation of O'Donnell or whether charges had been filed.
"I might have something to say on Tuesday," he said last week, refusing to elaborate.
O'Donnell, 57, and his attorney George O'Connell did not return calls for comment.
Attorney John Vandevelde, who represents current and former employees of the O'Donnell & Shaeffer law firm, also declined to comment.
Michael Proctor, an attorney representing O'Donnell's secretary, said the district attorney's office has questioned his client about contributions made by employees of the firm. He said she has done nothing wrong and has cooperated fully with the investigation.
"She's guilty of nothing more than being a secretary," Proctor said, declining to comment further.
Under city and state campaign laws, donors can contribute no more than $1,000 to one candidate per election. At least 21 people linked to O'Donnell's law firm made contributions of $1,000, records show.
"The limits were designed to prevent any one person or entity from having undue influence in a campaign," said Deena Ghaly, the Ethics Commission's deputy executive director for enforcement and legal affairs. She said she could not discuss or confirm active investigations.
In addition to the criminal probe, sources said the Ethics Commission was conducting an administrative inquiry in which fines could be imposed.
Ghaly said fines could reach $5,000 per violation or three times the amount that was unlawfully contributed, whichever is greater.
The probes come at a time when federal and state grand juries are investigating political fundraising activities of the Hahn administration. The district attorney has said he was trying to confirm whether city contractors had been forced to "pay to play" by making political contributions to maintain contracts at the airport and other city agencies.
A spokeswoman from Hahn's office referred calls to the mayor's campaign office Friday. A spokesman for the campaign could not be reached.
The O'Donnell investigation is similar to one involving Alan Casden, a major real estate developer in Southern California.
In November, Dist. Atty. Steve Cooley indicted an executive of Casden's company and 13 of his subcontractors on charges of conspiring to make illegal campaign donations.
The district attorney said Casden was also under investigation for allegedly laundering campaign contributions to four Los Angeles politicians: City Atty. Rocky Delgadillo, Councilman Jack Weiss, Councilwoman Wendy Greuel and onetime mayoral candidate Kathleen Connell.
None of the politicians was considered a target of the investigation.
Casden has denied any wrongdoing.
At the time of the indictment, Cooley said the investigation into Casden was part of a wider investigation into illegal campaign funding in Los Angeles.
On Friday, those who know O'Donnell spoke highly of his skills as an attorney. Last year, the Daily Journal, a legal paper, listed him among the 100 most influential attorneys in the state.