California gubernatorial candidate Meg Whitman today found herself battling allegations that she knowingly employed an undocumented immigrant housekeeper, failed to pay a portion of her wages and then fired her in an act of political damage control.
The charges come a little over a month before the November election.
At a news conference in Los Angeles on Wednesday organized by celebrity lawyer Gloria Allred, Whitman's former housekeeper and nanny, Nicky Diaz, tearfully recounted how in June 2009 she was suddenly terminated by Whitman and her husband, Griffith Harsh, after she said she asked the couple for legal help to obtain U.S. citizenship. Allred also alleged that Whitman became aware of Diaz's undocumented status years earlier, but took no action.
Whitman said the "charges are without merit."
Diaz told reporters that just a few months before Whitman announced she was running for governor as a Republican, the former eBay CEO fired her after nine years spent cleaning the couple's 3,700-square-foot home in an upscale Northern California suburb and shuttling their children to and from school and appointments.
"From now on you don't know me and I don't know you," Diaz said Whitman told her in the summer of 2009. "I was shocked and hurt that Ms. Whitman would treat me this way after nine years. I realized at that moment that she didn't appreciate my work. I felt like she was throwing me away like a piece of garbage."
In a statement released on Wednesday, Whitman said, "Nicky had falsified the hiring documents and personal information she provided to the employment agency that brought her to us in 2000." The statement continued, "Nicky told me that she was admitting her deception now because she was aware that her lie might come out during the campaign."
In her statement, Whitman described Diaz as a "friend of our family" and a faithful employee who had to be fired once she confessed to being an illegal worker.
Whitman's campaign also provided an employment questionnaire Diaz filled out in 2000 in which she stated that she could legally accept work in the United States, as well as copies of immigration and W-4 forms, a California driver's license and a Social Security card all in Diaz's name.
Whitman Questions Accuser's Motive
But at the news conference in Los Angeles, Allred said Whitman failed to respond to multiple inquiries by the Social Security Administration warning that the Social Security number Diaz provided did not match her name. Allred said she was prepared to release a document which confirms the allegations, but declined to provide additional details.
"Was Ms. Whitman engaging in her own form of Don't Ask, Don't Tell so that she could continue to benefit from the work of a vulnerable and undocumented worker and exploit her while pretending that she didn't know the truth about Nicky's status?" Allred asked, adding that her client "was terminated in a sudden, cruel and heartless way."
Allred said that Whitman initially hired Diaz to work 15 hours per week for $23 an hour, but that over time the family asked Diaz to perform additional duties without paying her for extra time or providing reimbursement for mileage.
The Whitman campaign sought on Wednesday to discredit Allred, calling into question the timing of the allegations and asserting that the high-profile lawyer had ties to Whitman's Democratic opponent, California Attorney General Jerry Brown. The evidence that the campaign provided included financial donations Allred made to Brown in 1982 and 2006 as well as information about Allred's ties to the Democratic Party.
Whitman spokeswoman Andrea Jones Rivera called Allred a shameful manipulator and said that the allegations she and her client leveled on Wednesday "serve as a warning to Californians that they are witnessing dirty political smears at their worst."
The new wrinkle in the governor's race came just hours after Whitman and Brown met for their first debate of the general election campaign on Tuesday night. The two candidates are in a virtual dead heat, according to a recent Field Poll. Whitman has spent roughly $120 million of her own fortune on the campaign.
Not First Accusation of Whitman MistreatmentThe Whitman team also pointed out that Allred has been involved in at least one other last-minute attack against a Republican gubernatorial candidate. In the closing days of California's 2003 recall election, Allred represented a woman who claimed that then-candidate Arnold Schwarzenegger had sexually assaulted her in the past. The lawsuit was later thrown out.
This is also not the first time Whitman has faced allegations of mistreatment. In 2007 Whitman allegedly cursed at and shoved an eBay employee in a conference room at the company's headquarters. The New York Times reported in June that Whitman paid the employee, Young Mi Kim, a settlement worth about $200,000.
Allred said that she and her client plan to file a claim for the back wages and mileage that they claim were not reimbursed. At one point during Wednesday's news conference Diaz had to leave the room to compose herself.
"I'm doing this because I know there are a lot of Megs out there who are mistreating the Nickys who work so hard for them," Diaz said. "I hope that no one else in my position has to suffer the way that I did."