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CEO Whitman flunks home economics

By Ruben Navarrette Jr., Special to CNN
  • California GOP candidate Meg Whitman, ex-eBay CEO, wants to run state like a business
  • Ruben Navarrette Jr. says Whitman didn't run her household very well
  • He says Whitman's claim she didn't know housekeeper was illegal immigrant is questionable
  • Whitman should have disclosed the matter at start of gubernatorial campaign, he says

Editor's note: Ruben Navarrette Jr. is a nationally syndicated columnist, an NPR commentator and a contributor.

San Diego, California (CNN) -- Now that she has cluttered a controversy over an undocumented housekeeper by making excuses, refusing to admit mistakes and blaming opponents for her troubles, Meg Whitman needs to go on eBay and buy a clue.

The former CEO of the internet powerhouse has said she didn't vote for many years. But apparently she also didn't read newspapers, listen to the radio or watch television.

Whitman must have missed all those stories over the last two decades about public officials -- Attorney General nominees Zoe Baird and Kimba Wood, one-time U.S. Rep. Michael Huffington of California, Cabinet nominees Linda Chavez and Bernard Kerik, etc. -- who got in hot water for hiring illegal immigrants. Otherwise, when she decided to run for governor of California, she would have combed through her own history and revealed any prior instances of such behavior.

The Republican candidate, who has spent more than $120 million of her own fortune on the race, says she wants to be governor so she can run the state like a business. But that pledge might be more reassuring to voters if, over the years, Whitman had done a better job running her own household.

Instead, she outsourced the more mundane duties and then failed to keep adequate tabs on the people she hired to carry them out. You wouldn't do that in business, and nor should you do it when it comes to your home and family.

Video: 'Not anyone's puppet'
Video: Meg Whitman: This is a smear attack
Video: Whitman: Allegations based on lies

Her defenders in the GOP say that was because Whitman and her husband, the renowned surgeon Dr. Griffith Harsh, are "two smart and busy people" who apparently didn't have time to worry about minor items like ensuring that their longtime housekeeper -- Nicky Diaz Santillan -- was in the country legally.

Guess what? The law applies to smart and busy people, too. So does the rough and tumble of politics.

And guess what? It turns out Santillian isn't in the country legally. She is an illegal immigrant from Mexico who worked for Whitman for nine years before being fired 15 months ago as the candidate was preparing to launch her campaign.

Santillan told a news conference that being let go left her feeling "exploited, disrespected [and] humiliated."

If Santillan thinks that was bad, just wait until she's done being used by her media-addicted Los Angeles lawyer, Gloria Allred, to help Democrat Jerry Brown -- whom she has long supported -- win the election.

Despite desperate attempts by Whitman supporters to change the subject and make Allred or Brown the issue, they aren't the issue.

The issue is quite simple. It's Whitman's truthfulness and character, and both those things have taken a beating as result of the housekeeper story.

Whitman claims that she never suspected Santillan was in the country illegally, that she went through an employment agency, and that neither she nor her husband ever received a letter from the Social Security Administration telling her that the Social Security number that Santillan provided her employers when she was hired belonged to someone else.

Not so. Allred produced a copy of one of those letters, complete with a scribbled note from Whitman's husband, telling Santillan to "please check this." We can assume Santillan -- having already broken the law at least twice by entering the country illegally and submitting phony documents -- did no such thing. Harsh should have followed up.

And while it's true that Harsh was under no legal obligation to take any action in response to the letter, the reason the Social Security Administration sends out this kind of correspondence is to make employers aware of discrepancies so they can resolve them -- not by firing the employee but by figuring out the problem and fixing it.

If employers do that, they might have a leg to stand on when there is another knock at the door -- from a much less benevolent government agency, Immigration and Customs Enforcement. ICE has been known to use the Social Security Administration letter as proof that the employer was put on notice that something was amiss with his or her employee's paperwork. However, if the employer disregards the letter, or delegates the responsibility to deal with it to someone else, it could come back to bite him or her.

When that happens, having told someone else to "please check this" is not considered an adequate legal defense. Nor will it get you far in the world of politics.

"When she received or [the] husband received the SSA correspondence, 'they' should have contacted an immigration attorney to fully understand what was expected and what options they had," California-based political strategist Arnold Torres, a Democrat who has worked for candidates from both parties, told me. "Instead, they took things for granted and placed the expectations on Nicky."

Whitman also claims that she never thought the immigration status of her former housekeeper was a big deal and so that's why she didn't bring it up herself earlier, as any good political strategist would have advised.

Not likely. Within hours of the story breaking, the Whitman campaign provided the media with immigration and Internal Revenue Service forms that Santillan signed back in 2000 stating that she was a legal resident of the United States.

That's awfully convenient. Campaign officials obviously had those documents at their fingertips. So much for this not being a big deal. Whitman's handlers must have known this story was poison. But, I suspect, they took a calculated risk to sit on the information and hope no one else turned it up.

Guess what? It didn't work out that way.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Ruben Navarrette Jr.