Carla Marinucci, John Wildermuth,Joe Garofoli, Chronicle Staff Writers
San Francisco Chronicle
Thursday, September 30, 2010
(09-29) 14:02 PDT SAN FRANCISCO — Startling accusations Wednesday that GOP gubernatorial candidate Meg Whitman had an illegal immigrant as her housekeeper for nine years have all the elements of a classic late-campaign “October surprise” – a sobbing victim, a media-savvy attorney, charges of hypocrisy and dirty tricks.
The charges sent Whitman’s campaign team into overdrive as it worked nonstop to limit the political damage from the allegations, which the former eBay CEO dismissed as lies and partisan attacks.
The latest chapter in California’s gubernatorial race unfolded live on TMZ.com, just hours after Whitman finished her first televised debate with her November opponent, Democratic Attorney General Jerry Brown, a debate in which she argued that California employers must be held accountable for hiring undocumented workers.
It starred Los Angeles attorney Gloria Allred, a Democratic donor who is a controversial veteran of many highly publicized cases, surrounded by a battery of cameras in her office.
Seated beside her was Mexican-born Nicandra Diaz Santillan – Whitman’s nanny and housekeeper from 2000 to 2009 – who charged that Whitman had mistreated her and failed to pay her for all the hours she worked.
Allred alleged that Whitman “never asked if Nicky were here legally” when she hired her to work 15 hours a week as a $23-an-hour housekeeper in Whitman’s 15,000-square-foot home, then upped her workload and responsibilities. The attorney said she would file a lawsuit demanding back wages for hours she said Diaz worked and for which she was never paid, and for years of unspecified “abuse” she took at her employer’s hands.
But Whitman said she had no way of knowing Diaz was in the country illegally because the housekeeper had provided her with a phony Social Security number and signed a required statement stating that she was a legal resident of the country.
Allred charged that Whitman ignored a 2003 letter the Social Security Administration sent to her home, informing her that Diaz’s Social Security number did not match her name – a red flag for an undocumented worker. She said the agency asked Whitman to provide proper documentation, and Whitman never responded. But Allred did not show such a document Wednesday to back up that claim.
Was there a letter?
Whitman’s team said the former CEO never saw such a letter – and, in any case, Diaz was in charge of picking up the mail in the house.
Sarah Kim-Lee of the San Francisco regional office of the Social Security Administration would neither confirm nor deny the existence of the letter, saying such correspondence would be confidential.
It wasn’t until Diaz came to her in June 2009 and said she was an illegal worker who had falsified her employment information that Whitman knew there was a problem, she said. Whitman then fired Diaz, saying in a statement that “it was one of the hardest things I’ve ever done.”
“I feel terrible for Nicky,” Whitman said at a campaign event Wednesday at Cisco Systems in San Jose. “She is being manipulated and I’m sorry. Everything Gloria Allred is saying is an absolute lie.”
Whitman added, in response to a reporter’s question, that she hadn’t addressed the matter in her many discussions about immigration during the campaign because “it never came up.”
The day’s events were “an absolute shame … a political manipulation by the Jerry Brown campaign and the Democratic Party,” said Hector Barajas, a spokesman for the Whitman campaign. In exploiting Diaz, “it just shows how far they’re going to get elected.”
But Brown spokesman Sterling Clifford said the story underscores how “once again, Meg Whitman has shown that she thinks the rules don’t apply to her.”
Just days until California voters begin casting mail ballots, the passion on both sides raises a key question in California’s marquee race: Will the allegations that Whitman hired – and even possibly mistreated – an undocumented Mexican housekeeper be a game-changer in the deadlocked contest between Brown and Whitman?
“Absolutely; she’s hypocritical when it comes to immigrant rights,” said Rose Ann DeMoro, chief executive of the California Nurses Association, which has satirized Whitman on the campaign trail as “Queen Meg,” an out-of-touch billionaire businesswoman.
But Whitman’s quick response to the charges, which she apparently knew were coming, may limit any damage to her campaign, said Sam Singer, a San Francisco consultant who specializes in crisis communication.
“By being ready for the attack, she initially handled it very well,” he said. “By immediately responding … she may have knocked the legs out from under this story.”
The results of the controversy could be very different in the Latino community, however.
Whitman – aiming to attract at least one-third of California’s 15 million Latino voters – has opened a campaign office in East Los Angeles and run a barrage of Spanish-language television and radio ads as part of her aggressive outreach.
But the televised image of Diaz crying over her treatment by Whitman is likely to be a strong one in the Latino community, said Jaime Regalado, director of the Edmund G. “Pat” Brown Institute of Public Affairs at Cal State Los Angeles.
In Diaz, Latinos “can recognize someone they know, someone who may live across the street,” he said. “It helps to undermine everything Whitman may have done so far.”
The story will be a sensation in the Spanish-language press and one that won’t go away in a hurry, Regalado added.
Democrats will be doing everything possible to keep the story alive. Brown’s supporters would be delighted if Whitman had to spend days dealing with the backlash from the charges, throwing her off the campaign’s planned message with the candidates’ second debate coming up Saturday in Fresno.
Trouble over immigrants
Questions about illegal maids, housekeepers and nannies have been raised about a number of political figures over the years. They include:
Zoe Baird: The corporate attorney who was President Bill Clinton’s first nominee for attorney general admitted in 1993 that a Peruvian couple who worked for her were in the country illegally.
Kimba Wood: The New York judge who was Clinton’s second choice for attorney general had a longtime babysitter who had come to the United States illegally from Mexico.
Rep. Michael Huffington: Admitted during the 1994 Senate race against Democrat Dianne Feinstein that he had known that the family’s longtime nanny, fired before the start of the campaign, was an illegal immigrant.
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