Reporting from San Jose and Los Angeles — California Republican gubernatorial nominee Meg Whitman acknowledged Wednesday that she paid an undocumented worker to clean her residence and provide other services in her home for nine years but insisted that she had been unaware of the woman's immigration status.
Whitman, who has vowed to crack down on illegal immigration, said her family hired Nicandra Diaz Santillan through an employment agency to which Diaz Santillan had provided documentation suggesting she was an American citizen. Whitman said Diaz Santillan showed her a copy of her Social Security card and California driver's license, and campaign officials distributed those documents to the media.
Whitman said she fired Diaz Santillan in June 2009 after the woman revealed that she was living in the country illegally.
Diaz Santillan, by contrast, said at a news conference in the office of her attorney, Gloria Allred, that Whitman had been aware she was undocumented and used that knowledge to exploit her.
Whitman's aides were quick to note that Allred is a longtime supporter of Democratic candidates.
The controversy poses potential threats to Whitman's campaign. A similar incident severely damaged Michael Huffington's effort to be elected U.S. senator from California in 1994. Whitman has made a point in her campaign that employers should be held responsible if they hire illegal workers.
In Tuesday night's debate against her Democratic opponent, Atty. Gen. Jerry Brown, Whitman had reiterated her disapproval of employers who hire illegal immigrants, saying, "We do have to hold employers accountable for hiring only documented workers, and we do have to enforce that law."
Pitting Whitman against a Latina who says she was badly treated could undermine the candidate's extensive outreach efforts to Latino voters, a segment of the electorate critical to winning.
The issue also could hurt Whitman among conservative Republicans, some of whom have criticized her for being insufficiently tough on immigration.
Whitman tried to court conservatives in her party's spring primary by pledging to be "tough as nails" on illegal immigration but is now erecting billboards in Latino neighborhoods emphasizing her opposition to measures such as Arizona's controversial new law.
The allegations already have stirred passions among conservatives, serving as a hot topic Wednesday afternoon on the "John and Ken" radio show on KFI-AM (640), which has been hammering Whitman for being too liberal on illegal immigration.
The hosts suggested that Whitman should have known her housekeeper was undocumented. They focused on Diaz Santillan's allegation that Whitman and her husband for years received letters from the Social Security Administration seeking more employment information about their housekeeper.
The federal agency sent the letters starting April 22, 2003, because the Social Security number that Diaz Santillan provided to Whitman did not match her name — a red flag that often pops up when an illegal immigrant provides a false Social Security number, according to Allred.
Whitman denied receiving any such letters.
Allred, appearing at her Wilshire Boulevard office in her trademark red blazer, and Diaz Santillan laid out their case in English and Spanish, a nod to the crush of Spanish-language television and radio stations on hand for the news conference.
The attorney said her client was cheated out of wages and mileage reimbursement, as well as threatened with termination when she needed to take a leave to give birth. She said Diaz Santillan was "exploited, disrespected, humiliated and emotionally and financially abused."
Whitman denied the allegations, and her campaign officials produced employment records they say Diaz Santillan falsified to give the appearance that she was an American citizen.
"We had no reason to believe she was not legal," Whitman said after a San Jose campaign event. "No one could have been more stunned than I was when she came to us on that Saturday that June and said, 'I'm not here legally.' "
Allred declined to say whether Diaz Santillan remains undocumented. She said Diaz Santillan has retained an immigration attorney.
Whitman said Diaz Santillan's allegations are part of a smear campaign driven by Brown's allies.
Her campaign pointed out that Allred has given a modest contribution to Brown's political campaign, and that Allred also represented a plaintiff who made politically damaging personal allegations against Arnold Schwarzenegger when he first ran for office in the 2003 gubernatorial recall election.
Diaz Santillan said her motivation was to draw attention to the abuse of undocumented workers.
"I'm doing this because I know there are a lot of Megs out there who are mistreating the Nickys who work so hard for them," she said.