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Immigrant's abuse claims against Whitman rock California race

From Alan Duke and Jessica Yellin, CNN
  • NEW: Whitman says she relied on an employment agency to verify housekeeper's status
  • A letter warning Whitman of a SSN "mismatch" will be released, lawyer says
  • Whitman campaign releases documents it says show ex-housekeeper lied about status
  • The Mexican ex-housekeeper claims emotional and financial abuse by GOP candidate

Los Angeles, California (CNN) -- The hot-button issue of illegal immigration erupted in the California race for governor Wednesday as a Mexican housekeeper once employed by GOP nominee Meg Whitman alleged that she had been "exploited, disrespected, humiliated and emotionally and financially abused" by the former eBay CEO.

Nicky Diaz Santillan, who worked for Whitman for nine years, was fired in June 2009 "for what appeared to be political reasons involving Ms. Whitman's decision to run for governor," famed attorney Gloria Allred claimed in a news conference.

The Whitman campaign immediately shot back, providing immigration and IRS forms it said Santillan signed stating she was a legal resident of the United States when she first applied for employment as a housekeeper in 2000.

The campaign included a copy of a Social Security card and California driver's license it said Santillan had given Whitman.

Whitman, in an interview Wednesday afternoon, said she relied on the employment agency that provided Santillan to verify she was a legal resident.

"As soon as we found that she was an illegal immigrant, we did what we had to do as an employer, which was to let her go," Whitman said. "But all of the documentation that we had said that she was legal."

Allred alleged that Whitman should have known Santillan was an undocumented worker, because several letters, dating back to 2002, were sent to her about the maid's "mismatched" Social Security number.

A copy of that letter will be released to the news media Thursday, Allred said.

"Nicky also alleges that for several more years, Ms. Whitman continued to receive the letters from the Social Security Administration Office regarding the mismatch in the Social Security numbers," Allred said. "She also alleges that she saw these letters after they were thrown into the trash."

Allred claimed that back in August 2000, Santillan "was sent by an employment agency to interview with Meg Whitman for a job as a housekeeper. ... Nicky alleges that Ms. Whitman never asked if [she] was here legally," Allred said.

"The inconvenient truth of the hypocrisy of Meg Whitman as illustrated by her employment of an undocumented worker and her exploitation of her was going to be revealed, because Nicky wanted to be legalized," Allred said.

"Nicky was terminated in a sudden, cruel and heartless way," she added.

Allred said Santillan intends to file a claim for unfairly denied wages.

"When I met with Meg Whitman on June 20, 2009, I asked her for assistance," Santillan said. "I explained to her why I came to the United States. I explained that I was married and our economic situation in Mexico was very bad. We had no job, no food, no place to live and for that reason we made the decision to come here."

"Ms. Whitman just laughed," Santillan said. Whitman, Santillan claimed, also blamed herself for failing to previously ask for any documentation.

Whitman, according to Santillan, indicated four days later that she couldn't help the former housekeeper.

"She said, 'I cannot help you and do not say anything to my children. I will tell them you already have a new job and that you want to go to school and from now on, you don't know me and I do not know you. You have never seen me and I have never seen you. Do you understand me?'"

Allred also outlined what she said were abusive labor practices by Whitman, including not reimbursing the maid for mileage when she ran errands and not allowing her maternity leave.

"When Nicky indicated to Ms. Whitman in March 2005, that she needed to take a medical leave of absence for pregnancy, she alleges that she was told that unless she herself obtained someone to replace her, that her job might not be there for her when she returned."

Whitman has previously beat back allegations she was involved in a 2007 shoving altercation with an employee at eBay's California headquarters after the Silicon Valley chief felt unprepared for an upcoming media interview. The incident reportedly led to a $200,000 settlement.

Responding to the press conference, Whitman campaign laywer Tom Hiltchak told reporters that, when hired in 2000, Santillan gave Whitman false documentation, including IRS forms, a Social Security card, a California drivers license, and Department of Justice immigration forms in which the stated she was a lawful alien.

When Santillan told Whitman in 2009 that the documents were false and she was illegal, Whitman "immediately suspended and then terminated" Santillan's employment, according to the campaign.

Rob Stutzman, a senior advisor to the campaign, told reporters that Whitman "is very sad and has deep sorrow" over the incident.

"She was, in many ways, a member of our extended family and I feel badly for her," Whitman said. "She's being manipulated."

Whitman spokeswoman Andrea Jones Rivera ripped Allred, claiming the high-profile attorney is merely attempting to smear the California Republican.

"With the polls tied, it comes as no surprise that the morning after a successful debate for Meg that the sleaze machine of the political left is now focused on the politics of personal destruction. Gloria Allred is a shameful manipulator and the timing of today's news conference so close to the election should serve as a warning to Californians that they are witnessing dirty political smears at their worst," Rivera said in a statement.

Stutzman said it was "curious" that Santillan would bring forward allegations against Whitman a mere 35 days before the election. It's even "more curious," he said, that the news conference featuring the former housekeeper was being orchestrated by Allred, who has a "clear relationship" with Democratic gubernatorial nominee Jerry Brown.

A CNN check of Allred's political contributions showed she has donated extensively to Democratic candidates.

The allegations are part of a "post-debate smoke bomb" to try and obscure Brown's "bizarre behavior" after Tuesday night's debate against Whitman, Stutzman claimed. It is part of the politics of "personal destruction," he said.

With a sardonic laugh, Stutzman asked reporters, "What's a California governors race without Gloria Allred inserting herself into it?"

Whitman is currently neck and neck with Brown in the polls.

The issue of immigration looms large in California, as in other states along the Mexican border. Whitman has come out against Arizona's controversial new anti-illegal immigration law, as well as California's controversial Proposition 187. However, she supports tough crackdowns on employers who hire illegal immigrants, requiring employers "pay a fine and have their business license suspended for 10 days" for first-time offenses, with steeper fines and penalties for repeat offenders.