Republican gubernatorial nominee Meg Whitman admitted Thursday that a confrontation with a subordinate at EBay in 2007 became physical, contradicting her assertion earlier in the week that the incident was a "verbal dispute."
The New York Times reported last week that in June 2007, a communications aide was helping to prepare Whitman, then EBay's chief executive, for an interview with the Reuters news agency when Whitman got angry, uttered an expletive and shoved the aide. The incident led to a confidential settlement in which the employee, Young Mi Kim, reportedly received $200,000.
Since then, both Whitman and her campaign have repeatedly characterized the matter as a run-of-the-mill verbal clash. But on Thursday, in her first public appearance since the Times report, Whitman reversed course.
"Young Mi Kim and I had a verbal disagreement and it escalated and I actually, as the New York Times quite accurately reported, you know escorted her out of the room and then I went back to what I needed to do in that meeting," said Whitman, speaking to reporters after a campaign event at a sneaker and sports apparel shop in South Gate.
Pressed for details, Whitman confirmed that she placed her hands on the subordinate.
"There was a verbal dispute, you know, [I] needed, wanted to get focused on what I needed to do — in a media interview by the way," she said, chuckling. "So as I said, I just physically escorted her out of the conference room."
Kim left the company for a short time after the incident, but returned and is now a senior manager for corporate communications. She has not commented since the Times report.
Whitman and her campaign have labored for more than a week to portray the confrontation as a routine flare-up in the pressure-cooker business world.
In a written statement released last week, Whitman characterized it as a "professional disagreement."
"In any high-pressure working environment, tensions can surface," Whitman's statement said.
At the same time, her spokeswoman, Sarah Pompei, issued a statement that said: "A verbal dispute in a high-pressure working environment isn't out of the ordinary."
One week later, Whitman did her first interviews after the scandal broke, appearing on three conservative radio shows.
"We had a misunderstanding," Whitman told radio host Eric Hogue on Sacramento's KTKZ-AM (1380). "It was a verbal dispute, and that kind of thing can happen in a high-pressure work environment and we put it behind us a long time ago."
But on Thursday, in addition to confirming that the dispute had a physical element, Whitman offered a conflicted message about whether such behavior is common or unusual.
"Sometimes these things happen," she said, before adding, "It's an anomaly."
Asked what she learned from the incident, Whitman said: "You always have to act professionally, right? And you just have to be thoughtful about your interactions. It was an anomaly. It's one of those things that happens in business. I've been in business 30 years, and you know, it's one of those things that just happens."
Democrats jumped on the contradictions in Whitman's latest statements.
"Whitman's story keeps changing, and it's clear this issue is not going away because it speaks to her leadership style," said Shawnda Westly, executive director of the California Democratic Party. "We know she became angry, verbally abusive and put her hands on an employee that she was displeased with. What's unclear is what exactly Whitman said to the employee that warranted a $200,000 payoff."
Democratic rival Jerry Brown's campaign, which initially avoided discussing the matter, on Thursday questioned whether Whitman could handle the pressure of working in the dysfunctional state capital.
"Can Whitman keep her temper in check long enough to address the breakdown in Sacramento?" asked spokesman Sterling Clifford.