Meg Whitman launched a forceful effort Thursday to regain control of her campaign for governor, pledging to take a lie detector test if necessary to prove that she and her husband were unaware they had employed an illegal immigrant housekeeper for nine years until the woman confessed her status in 2009.
“If it comes to that, absolutely,” she said at a hastily called news conference in Santa Monica, her husband, Griff Harsh, at her side. “Absolutely, because we were stunned.”
But Whitman’s lengthy defense was undercut by the second in a dramatic duel of widely broadcast news conferences as the housekeeper’s attorney, Gloria Allred, produced a copy of a government letter sent six years before Nicandra Diaz Santillan was fired alerting the couple to potential problems. On the bottom of the letter was a note in what Allred said was Whitman’s husband’s handwriting: “Nicky, please check this. Thanks.”
“Meg Whitman is exposed as a liar and a hypocrite,” Allred said, pledging to present evidence that the writing was Harsh’s if the couple denied it.
After Allred’s news conference, Harsh declined to say whether it was his handwriting on the letter from the Social Security Administration which told the couple that Diaz Santillan’s Social Security number and name did not match. He then released a statement through the campaign acknowledging that he might have written the note.
“While I honestly do not recall receiving this letter … it is possible that I would have scratched a follow-up note on a letter like this,” he said, adding that “neither Meg nor I believed there was a problem with Nicky’s legal status.”
Before Allred announced the presence of the writing, Whitman, the former chief executive of EBay, who is making her first run for public office, said that the couple had never seen such a letter. If one had been mailed, Diaz Santillan may have been responsible for taking it, she said.
“She may have intercepted the letter, it’s very possible, I have no other explanation,” Whitman said. “Nicky did bring in the mail and sort the mail.... It pains me to say that because, gosh, that’s not the Nicky I knew.”
The second day of telenovela-style conflict between the billionaire Republican candidate and her former $23-an-hour maid roiled the campaign for governor, as Whitman sought to limit damage by blaming the contretemps on her opponent, Democrat Jerry Brown. But she acknowledged that she had no evidence of his complicity.
The focus on an illegal immigrant employee posed a potential threat to Whitman’s candidacy because of timing — ballots are mailed to early voters next week — and the impact the dispute could have on key voter groups integral to Whitman’s chances of success in November. Of particular concern was the effect on Latino voters and independents, both of whom have been sympathetic to immigrants, if conflicted about how to handle illegal immigration.
Brown’s campaign denied that it was behind the emergence of Diaz Santillan and specifically brushed aside Whitman’s contention that officials had talked about the general subject with a reporter two weeks ago.
“Our campaign has had no contact with Gloria Allred or Ms. Diaz,” said Brown spokesman Sterling Clifford. “I think that the question to be answered today is, whose handwriting is on the letter and what did Meg Whitman know and when did she know it?”
The release of the letter elevated, if somewhat confusingly, a disagreement that for the previous day had been limited to Whitman’s word against Diaz Santillan’s, played out in comments by the sobbing housekeeper, her media-savvy attorney and a somber candidate.
Both sides agree that the woman was employed by Whitman and Harsh in 2000, after the couple engaged a Palo Alto employment firm to hire a part-time housekeeper. The firm, Town & Country Resources, confirmed Thursday that Whitman was a client and said that Diaz Santillan had provided the parties with proper documents. Whitman’s campaign Wednesday released copies of a driver’s license, Social Security card and a tax document confirming her legal status.
Whitman said Wednesday and Thursday that she and Harsh were unaware that their employee did not have legal papers until June 2009, when Diaz Santillan asked the couple for legal help in gaining residency. Whitman said that she consulted a lawyer and then fired the employee. She said that although Diaz Santillan was a member of Whitman’s “extended family,” the two have had no contact since the firing.
By Diaz Santillan’s account, Whitman fired her by saying, “You never have seen me and I have never seen you. Do you understand me?”
While Allred contended that Whitman fired the housekeeper because she was a political liability, Whitman countered Thursday by pointing out that Diaz Santillan was fired months after Whitman announced her campaign.
But the letter called into question when the couple knew there might be a problem. In a campaign call, Whitman strategist Rob Stutzman called the letter a “rather perfunctory piece of paperwork,” and other campaign officials noted that it came to no conclusion about Diaz Santillan’s legal status. But questions about erroneous Social Security numbers can be a tip-off to a residency issue.
Underscoring the stakes has been the Whitman campaign’s swift response. Before Allred had spoken at her first news conference Wednesday, the Whitman forces released copies of Diaz Santillan’s driver’s license, Social Security card and federal tax documents, all papers that demonstrated their position that Diaz Santillan had duped them.
After Allred called a second news conference for midday Thursday, Whitman called one of her own for mid-morning, at which for 46 minutes she answered questions, repeated her version of events, denied that she had ever mistreated Diaz Santillan and said the woman was being manipulated by Democrats.
The response was in stark contrast to the campaign’s behavior during a June controversy stemming from a report that Whitman had uttered an expletive and shoved an aide in a dispute at EBay. At that time, Whitman said through an aide that the confrontation was verbal. She disappeared from public view for a week before surfacing to acknowledge that the conflict was in fact physical.
Although the housekeeper controversy was dominating coverage of the governor’s race Wednesday and Thursday — obliterating mention of Tuesday night’s debate, for example — political veterans differed about its ultimate impact. Most suggested that Whitman needed to quickly turn the page.
“They’ve got to take the oxygen away from the fire in terms of the follow-up,” said Republican strategist Ken Khachigian.
In the days before the dispute, Brown had the momentum in the race. And the days of discussion about Whitman’s domestic help at minimum distracted from her electoral message that the state needs a fresh newcomer to force Sacramento out of its dysfunction.
“Their objective has to be making this a non-issue,” said GOP consultant Adam Mendelsohn. “In these final weeks, every day the news stories that night are about the back and forth between Nicky and the Whitman family, that’s a day they are losing talking about why people should elect her.”
But he and others said the controversy could backfire to Whitman’s benefit.
“Voters are very savvy and they are highly suspicious of these things happening a few weeks before an election,” Mendelsohn said.
Jaime A. Regalado, the director of the Edmund G. “Pat” Brown Institute of Public Affairs at Cal State L.A., said Whitman may be hurt among Latino voters as well as independents if the matter dominates the campaign discussion.
Also contributing were Times staff writers Cathleen Decker, Michael J. Mishak and Maeve Reston.