Suddenly, a not-so-hidden secret has become a skeleton in the closet, one unlikely to go away any time soon.
Observers say public scrutiny over domestic employees is further discouraging a whole generation of potential leaders--some of whom were already chilled by past marijuana use--from seeking public service. In addition, illegal practices involving the hiring and paying of domestic employees may be more widespread than pot-smoking and will probably hurt ambitious professional women more than men.
Calling it a "witch hunt," Ellen Galinsky, founder of the Work and Family Institute in New York, says she knows "people who were up for Administration jobs who are not going to do it. I know of people asked to be in the pool for attorney general who decided not to do it because once in their background" they hired an illegal worker or did not pay taxes.
"I think it's the rare person who hasn't done this at least once in their lives," Galinsky adds.
According to the IRS, about 500,000 people paid Social Security taxes for their household help last year, but at least 2 million should have paid. The Bureau of Labor Statistics reports as many as 7 million people hire household help annually, although not all are required to pay taxes.
Many baby boomers now contemplating leadership roles have had to put together a patchwork system of child care, Galinsky says. "A lot of them have not paid (taxes) and most didn't even know they were supposed to pay. And if they tried to pay, their providers may not have wanted them to pay. They don't make enough money so they didn't want to work on the books. This is a mainstream American issue on every level."
"If we're going to punish people for doing this, particularly somebody like Kimba Wood who did comply with the law, then we are taking away a whole generation of leaders," Galinsky says.
"There is clearly a chilling effect, but not only with respect to women," says Barbara Mendel Mayden, member of the board of Governors of the American Bar Assn.
Many people in their 40s, "who went to school in the '60s and early '70s, took their names out of the ring a long time ago," Mayden says. "If you went to school in the late '60s or '70s, you don't want a magnifying glass placed over that part of your life.
"This is just something else going into the hopper."
Observers such as Norman Ornstein, resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, say women were unfairly targeted as a result of the original criticism of Zoe Baird. "There is an awful lot of truth to the assertion that if Zoe Baird's husband had come forward and the issue raised, and he had said, 'I don't handle the child care. I left it to my wife,' it would not have been a disqualifying issue. The reality is, when it comes to household help, it's probably an onus on the woman."
While the public outcry against Baird came largely from other women who were upset with the fact that she made more than $500,000 a year and could afford to hire legal employees, the criticism of Wood came more from the White House than the public.
"I do think this feels like Anita Hill all over again," Galinsky says. "To the extent Zoe Baird was a class issue, Kimba Wood is a gender issue." She notes the Clinton Administration's defense of Commerce Secretary Ron Brown, who admitted over the weekend that he recently made up for a failure to pay Social Security taxes for a domestic employee.
"The whole thing, which is really very sad, is that what we've really seen in all of this, is women are still not friends of men," says Rep. Patricia Schroeder, (D-Colo.). "When someone sits down to pick out a cabinet secretary, the women are referred (have to be sought out) and the men are (already) friends. Ron Brown was defended because he's a friend."
"The rules seem to be changing in midstream," says Alice Richmond, a practicing attorney in Boston. "What all this says is you're needing to make a choice again, between trying to have a family and a private life and being a lawyer.
"I know the hours I put in. Every woman lawyer considered for high public office will have similar experience to mine. For women lawyers or professionals, you can't put your kids in a 9 to 5 day care center. You're not finished working at 5 in the afternoon."
Some professionals, both men and women, have paid back taxes in hopes of salvaging their futures. "It's better to fix it, be in compliance than have to admit a year from now after the issue has been brought to the forefront, that despite the brouhaha, they chose to not comply with the law," says Hilarie Bass, an attorney in Miami.
She is among those career mothers who are not discouraged by the fall of the two attorney general candidates. "I pay an extra $75 a week to get someone willing to be on the books," she says.