Attorney says Calif. gov candidate Whitman knew housekeeper was illegal; Whitman denies claim

By Michael R. Blood, AP
Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Whitman denies she knew housekeeper was illegal

LOS ANGELES — California gubernatorial candidate Meg Whitman employed an illegal immigrant Mexican housekeeper for years even though the federal government alerted her in 2003 to the maid’s dubious legal status, the worker and her attorney claimed.

The Republican Whitman — who on the campaign trail has called for tougher sanctions against employers who hire illegal workers — said the allegations amounted to a baseless stunt. She said she was not aware the housekeeper, Nicky Diaz Santillan, was in the U.S. illegally until the woman volunteered the information in 2009, after which Whitman fired her. In all, the woman worked for the Whitman family for nine years, making $23 an hour.

Whitman also denied Diaz Santillan’s claim that she received a 2003 letter from the Social Security Administration that said the Social Security number provided by the housekeeper did not match the name on file. Allred did not provide documents to back up her claim.

“We never received that letter or that notification,” Whitman said after a campaign event in San Jose, Calif.

Her campaign released employment applications filled out when the housekeeper was hired in 2000, including a copy of a Social Security card and a California driver’s license, that indicated the woman was a legal resident.

The allegations by Diaz Santillan, 39, and her attorney, Gloria Allred of Los Angeles, a longtime Democratic supporter who once gave money to Whitman’s opponent, Democrat Jerry Brown, challenged Whitman’s credibility on a key campaign issue, illegal immigration. The billionaire former eBay chief executive has called for tough sanctions, starting with fines, against employers who hire illegal workers.

“We do have to hold employers accountable for hiring only documented workers. And we do have to enforce that law,” Whitman said Tuesday in a debate with Brown at the University of California, Davis.

Throughout her employment “Nicky was undocumented and … Whitman was aware of her status,” Allred said.

The timing of the allegations about five weeks from Election Day, the lack of documentation to support the claims and Allred’s Democratic ties left her open to questions about motive in the dead-heat race. Allred was a Hillary Rodham Clinton delegate at the Democratic National Convention in 2008.

Asked about timing and her political links at a new conference, Allred said the former housekeeper “just recently contacted me.” She noted her donation to Brown in his race for attorney general was $150, although she has given to other Democrats, including President Barack Obama and California Sen. Barbara Boxer.

The allegations also come ahead of a scheduled Saturday Spanish-language debate that will include questions of importance to the Hispanic community.

Whitman has aggressively targeted Hispanic voters, who are typically Democratically aligned, and recent public opinion polls show she is having some success. Just this week, she won the endorsement of comedian Paul Rodriguez, who cited her commitment to restoring water to Central Valley farms.

Allred claims Whitman received the letter from the Social Security Administration on April 22, 2003, which noted a discrepancy between the Social Security number provided by the housekeeper and the name on file with the agency. Allred did not provide a copy of the letter, but said she would release “evidence” to support the claim Thursday.

Such letters can be a tip-off about possible immigration problems, although the agency stopped sending them to employers in 2007.

The housekeeper said she was told to “check on this,” then never heard about the letter again. Allred said Whitman continued to receive letters about the mismatched Social Security number, which Diaz Santillan found in the trash.

Agency spokesman Mark Lassiter said that from 2003-2006 an employer had to have more than 10 employees whose Social Security numbers and names did not match to receive a warning letter. It was not immediately clear how many domestic employees Whitman had during that time.

“An employer with one or two employees in 2003 to 2006 would not have gotten an employer … letter,” Lassiter said.

Whitman’s campaign said in a statement that Diaz Santillan came to Whitman and her husband in June 2009 and confessed that she had used her sister’s documents to gain employment in the U.S. That was five months after Whitman formed an exploratory committee to run for governor.

In an interview Wednesday on Fox Business Network, Whitman called the accusation that she knew Diaz Santillan was an illegal immigrant “a lie.”

In 2000, when Diaz Santillan was hired through an agency, “we specified with the agent we wanted to make sure we had someone who was here legally to work in the United States. No one was more surprised when she came to (me) in June 2009 and admitted she was here illegally and had forged the documents.” The Whitman campaign would not provide the name of the employment agency.

Allred also said Diaz Santillan was mistreated, and said she will file a claim against Whitman for back pay and mileage. She provided no proof to document those allegations.

No one answered the door Wednesday evening at an address listed for Diaz Santillan in a well-kept middle-class neighborhood in Union City, in the San Francisco Bay area. A wooden sign hung above the doorway of the tan, one-story home that read “Familia Santillan.”

Brown’s spokesman, Sterling Clifford, said in a statement that Whitman apparently thinks the rules don’t apply to her.

“After more than a year of Whitman demanding immigration policy that ‘holds employers accountable,’ we learn that accountability doesn’t extend to her own actions. From the start, Meg Whitman has failed to tell Californians the truth — about her voting record, her positions on climate change, her history of conflict with staffers, or about Jerry Brown.”

Clifford said the Browns use a well-known national housekeeping service that comes twice a month to their home in the Oakland Hills. He said Brown has never knowingly employed an illegal immigrant.

Williams reported from Sacramento. Associated Press Writer Trevor Hunnicutt in San Jose also contributed to this report.

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