A new controversy over illegal immigration engulfed the U.S. Senate race Thursday as GOP candidate Mike Huffington seized on a disputed and unverified news report claiming that Sen. Dianne Feinstein hired an illegal immigrant as a housekeeper in the early 1980s.
By late Thursday the striking San Francisco newspaper reporters responsible for the report said they were revising their story because they had received incomplete information from the Immigration and Naturalization Service. INS officials said they had no proof that Feinstein had employed an illegal immigrant and were rechecking their records.
In a crowded news conference in San Francisco, Feinstein told reporters that she employed a Guatemalan woman but that the woman provided documentation showing that she was in the country legally. Feinstein pointed out that in any case, the woman worked for her years before a 1986 federal law made the employment of illegal immigrants a crime.
Asked if she believes the woman was in the country illegally, Feinstein told reporters: "No, and I don't believe she was."
Throughout the day there was continuing uncertainty about the housekeeper's legal status, with Feinstein saying she was legally in the country and Republican challenger Huffington insisting otherwise. The first report about the housekeeper was prepared Thursday morning by striking San Francisco newspaper reporters and sent out over the Internet computer system.
But the reporters said they were revising their story to reflect that the INS had given them incorrect information. INS officials late Thursday said they were rechecking their records.
Even as Huffington's top campaign officials acknowledged they had no proof the housekeeper was illegally in the country, the candidate accused Feinstein of deception and an attempted cover-up. His campaign said it was preparing television commercials to run today.
"She is a liar. And she is a hypocrite. And she has purposefully and blatantly attempted to mislead you and the people of California. She is unworthy to serve in the United States Senate," Huffington told reporters at a news conference in Century City.
The day's furor erupted exactly one week after the Santa Barbara congressman acknowledged that he and his wife had hired an illegal immigrant as a nanny for more than four years, beginning in 1989--well after federal immigration law made such hiring a crime. The revelation convulsed Huffington's campaign and has dominated the race since.
Feinstein on Thursday drove home the distinctions between Huffington's action and her own. Most notably, she said, she hired the woman only after asking for documentation and employed the woman years before the federal law was enacted.
Unlike Huffington, Feinstein opposes Proposition 187, the ballot measure that would deny health and education services to illegal immigrants.
The political impact of Thursday's events was unclear.
"I think, from what I understand, it is does not appear to be the smoking gun. On the other hand, to the extent that Huffington can obfuscate the issue--as he has done with some success in terms of wealth and campaign spending and residency--it is . . . helpful" to Huffington, said Arnold Steinberg, a GOP consultant not associated with the Senate campaign.
Republican consultant Edward J. Rollins, one of several top GOP advisers to Huffington's $27-million campaign, told reporters that television ads on Feinstein could be aired beginning today. Said one campaign official: "We need a (newspaper) headline" to run with the ad.
Huffington's unverified accusations already took away a day of campaigning for Feinstein, whose support from a variety of women's groups and abortion rights advocates was eclipsed by the questioning about her housekeeper.
In a teleconference with reporters, Rollins and senior campaign strategist Ken Khachigian not only called Feinstein a hypocrite but suggested that federal agencies were attempting to protect her by withholding information.
"Worse than her lies, worse than her hypocrisy is the disturbing appearance that her campaign may have actively tried to mislead you and the voters by attempting to cover up this story," said Khachigian.
Federal officials said there was no effort to keep information from the Huffington campaign.
Late Thursday, Ron Rogers, an INS spokesman at the regional office in Laguna Niguel, said there was confusion over whether the woman in question actually was here illegally.
"I can't confirm the status of the person in question," said Rogers. "What happened is that a similar name was given, and the INS ran a check on a person with a name similar in nature."
Subsequently, Rogers said, the INS received a different name and was running that person through the agency data bank. He could not definitively say, however, that the latest name was the woman who worked for Feinstein, or what that person's status was.