Calif. Candidate Whitman Responds to Illegal Immigrant Hiring Revelation

BY Joanne Elgart Jennings  September 29, 2010 at 7:01 PM EDT

Updated 8:12 p.m. ET

SAN JOSE, Calif. | Revelations that Meg Whitman, the Republican candidate for governor in California, employed an illegal alien as a housekeeper for nine years have made waves in a tight campaign here.

At a news conference in Los Angeles with celebrity attorney Gloria Allred by her side, Nicky Diaz Santillan accused Whitman of laughing at her when she asked help obtaining legal status in June 2009, a few months after the former eBay CEO announced her intention to run for governor. “She treated me like a piece of garbage … as if I were not a human being.”

Whitman denied that account. Speaking to reporters gathered for a campaign event at Cisco Systems in Silicon Valley, Whitman said “No one could have been more stunned than I was when she came to us … and said ‘I’m not here legally.’”

Watch Whitman’s Wednesday remarks:

Allred, a longtime Democratic supporter who once gave money to Democratic candidate Jerry Brown, claimed that the Social Security Administration sent a letter to the Whitman household saying the Social Security number given for Diaz Santillan did not match her name. When asked by reporters about this, Whitman flatly denied receiving any such letters.

The campaign issued a copy of a job application, Social Security card and driver license they say Diaz Santillan presented to Whitman and her husband, which led them to believe she was allowed to work in the U.S.

It’s too soon to know what impact this will have on the campaign, but a CNN/Time/Opinion Research poll released Wednesday suggested the Brown is pulling ahead of Whitman (52 percent to 39 percent of likely voters) in what had been characterized in recent polls as a very close race.

The Whitman campaign painted Allred’s claims as a political stunt just weeks before November’s election.

The accusation came a day after Whitman and her Democratic rival, California Attorney Gen. Jerry Brown, faced off in their first debate of the campaign. When asked about her position on immigration, Whitman said that employers must be held accountable when they employ illegal immigrants.

“We do have to hold employers accountable for hiring only documented workers and we do have to enforce that law.”

But Whitman said she fulfilled her legal obligations, letting Diaz Santillan go once she and her husband found out “she was an illegal immigrant.”

The Brown campaign issued a statement about the matter:

Nicky Diaz has a compelling story, and it is our hope that she will be treated with respect and dignity as this story unfolds.

Once again, Meg Whitman has shown that she 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.

Immigration plays big in California elections and both candidates are courting the Latino vote with Spanish-language ads and a Spanish-language debate scheduled for Saturday.

In an interview Wednesday with the PBS NewsHour, Whitman said she didn’t think this revelation would affect her standing among Latino voters. She said, “You know what Latino-American voters care about? The same thing that every other voter cares about – and that’s jobs.”

We’ll have more of our interview with Whitman and a complete story about the California gubernatorial race next week on the NewsHour. Please stay tuned.