LOS ANGELES — Meg Whitman's aggressive efforts to court Latino voters in her bid for California governor have come to an unexpected place: her own home.
The billionaire Republican denied allegations Wednesday that she knew for years her housekeeper was an illegal immigrant from Mexico, and that she ignored warnings from the government that her employee might have dubious legal status in the United States.
For a candidate who has called for tougher sanctions against employers who hire illegal workers, the allegations, if proved, could undercut her credibility just weeks before Election Day and damage her image, particularly with Hispanics she has pursued for months.
Whitman has Spanish-language radio and TV ads and billboards — even Spanish-language posters at bus stops in Hispanic neighborhoods.
Gloria Allred, a Los Angeles attorney who represents Whitman's former maid, Nicky Diaz Santillan, said she would release evidence Thursday showing Whitman was aware of the maid's illegal status as far back as 2003, a claim Whitman denies.
Throughout her employment "Nicky was undocumented and . . . Whitman was aware of her status," Allred said Wednesday.
Specifically, Whitman disputes that she received a 2003 letter from the Social Security Administration that said the Social Security number the housekeeper provided did not match the name on file.
The former eBay chief executive called the allegations a political stunt. "We never received that letter or that notification," Whitman said after a campaign event in San Jose, Calif.
Whitman said she was not aware the housekeeper was in the United States 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.
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 timing of the allegations, 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 once gave money to Whitman's opponent, Democrat Jerry Brown, was she was a Hillary Rodham Clinton delegate at the Democratic National Convention in 2008.
Asked about timing and her political links at a news 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.
The letter at issue — dated April 22, 2003, according to Allred — noted a discrepancy between the Social Security number the housekeeper provided and the name on file with the agency.
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 United States. 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.
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," he said.
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.
Allred is known for savvy — some say manipulative — media skills that get her clients in the public eye. She's represented Jodie Fisher, whose sexual harassment allegations led to the ouster of former Hewlett-Packard Co. CEO Mark Hurd, and a stuntwoman who claimed Republican Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger's campaign defamed her after she alleged the former bodybuilder groped her.
Her decision to withhold "evidence" related to the Diaz Santillan case until Thursday guaranteed her case another day of headlines.
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