SACRAMENTO — In a disclosure that rattled the governor's race, Republican gubernatorial nominee Meg Whitman acknowledged Wednesday that she employed an illegal immigrant as a housekeeper for nine years until she began running for governor last year.
Fresh from the first debate of the fall campaign, where Whitman said employers who hire undocumented workers should be held responsible, the candidate said she was unaware of the legal status of Nicky Diaz Santillan until the woman confessed last year. Whitman said she then did "one of the hardest things I've ever done" and fired the nanny and housekeeper.
But a tearful Diaz Santillan, with celebrity lawyer Gloria Allred at her side in an emotional press conference in Los Angeles, suggested Whitman should have known she was illegal.
She told reporters that Whitman laughed when she asked for help obtaining legal status and said when she dismissed her, "From now on, you don't know me, and I don't know you."
She said Whitman "treated me like a piece of garbage. She treated me as if I were not a human being."
Her story, regardless of its veracity, is politically difficult for Whitman, who began courting the Latino vote as soon as she won the June primary.
It knocked the candidate off message for at least a day, and marked the first time since early in her primary contest – when she faced questions about her poor voting record – that the former eBay CEO has been so squarely on the defensive.
"This is really the first time since then that she hasn't been able to control the message in the campaign," said Thad Kousser, a political science professor at University of California, San Diego. "I think she'd rather not talk about immigration, and she certainly doesn't want to talk about this."
Whitman, in the final weeks of a fiercely contested race against Democrat Jerry Brown, said the timing of the disclosure is politically motivated and that she fears Diaz Santillan is being manipulated. The news conference came just hours after the televised debate between the candidates and five weeks before Election Day.
"This is a shameful example of the politics of personal destruction practiced by people like Jerry Brown and Gloria Allred," Whitman said in a written statement.
Even before Allred's announcement, Whitman's advisers held a conference call with reporters to say that the former employee used falsified documents in the hiring process. They described Allred as a partisan activist and noted that she is a past contributor to Brown.
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