Updated 4:17 p.m. Eastern Time
An attorney for Nicky Diaz Santillan, the former housekeeper of California Republican Gubernatorial Candidate Meg Whitman, claimed today that Whitman was aware of Santillan's status as an illegal immigrant and fired the housekeeper when she asked for help.
The attorney, Gloria Allred, said she was filing a claim for lost wages that are due to Santillan. The two women appeared at a press conference where Santillan tearfully discussed the allegations.
In a statement following the press conference, Whitman said "We consider Nicky a friend of our family and were saddened this morning to hear about her legal action."
"After 9 years of faithful service, Nicky came to us in June 2009 and confessed that she was an illegal worker," she continued. "Nicky had falsified the hiring documents and personal information she provided to the employment agency that brought her to us in 2000. Nicky told me that she was admitting her deception now because she was aware that her lie might come out during the campaign. Nicky said she was concerned about hurting my family and me."
"As required by law, once we learned she was an illegal worker, I
immediately terminated Nicky's employment," she continued. "It was one of the hardest
things I've ever done. I considered Nicky a friend and a part of our
The Whitman campaign posted documents online to back up those claims, which you can see here. The campaign says the documents show that Whitman was unaware that Santillan was not a legal resident. They include a social security card and California driver's license provided by Santillan and an eligibility form in which she claims to be a "lawful permanent resident."
Allred described the housekeeper's nine years working for Whitman as a "nightmare." She suggested Santillan was "exploited, disrespected, humiliated and emotionally and financially abused" by the Whitman family, which asked her to work longer than the 15 hours per week for which she was paid.
"She alleges that Ms. Whitman was aware of her status, and may have understood that she was vulnerable because of it," Allred said. Allred also suggested Whitman was engaged in a game of "don't ask, don't tell" to "exploit her while pretending that she didn't know the truth about her status."
It was, Allred said, "cold and heartless treatment of a hardworking Latina."
Allred then turned the microphone over to Santillan, who had to leave the room before making her statement. She then came back and spoke through tears, Allred's arm around her.
Santillan said she asked Whitman for help in finding an immigration attorney in June 2009, and explained to her that she moved from Mexico because she had "no job, no food, no place to live, and for that reason we made a decision to move here."
Whitman terminated her not long after she made the appeal, Santillan said, telling her, "don't 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 don't know you. You never have seen me, and I have never seen you. Do you understand me?"
Whitman "treat me as if I was not a human being," Santillan added, suggesting the candidate was "throwing me away like a piece of garbage."
"I know there are a lot of Megs out there who are mistreating the Nickys who work so hard for them," she said.
In the press conference, Allred referenced letters that came to the Whitman house concerning the fact that the social security number on file for Santillan was not valid, though she declined to discuss whether Santillan had provided a false social security number.
Allred also denied that the announcement was politically motivated and said she is "prepared to give you a document in support of our allegations," though she did not say what that document is. She said she would release the document if necessary after Whitman responds to the specifics of her claims.
She said Santillan did not leave her job despite the treatment from Whitman because Santillan did not believe she could find other employment.
"I am deeply worried about Nicky and her family," Whitman said in her statement. "I believe Nicky is being manipulated by Gloria Allred for political and financial purposes during the last few weeks of a hotly contested election. This is a shameful example of the politics of personal destruction practiced by people like Jerry Brown and Gloria Allred. The charges are without merit. I will continue to focus my campaign on the issues that the people of California want to hear about: jobs, education and fixing our broken budget system in Sacramento."
The press conference was held in Spanish as well as English, in an apparent attempt to drive coverage of Santillan's situation in the Spanish-language media. A Los Angeles Times poll yesterday found Democratic candidate Jerry Brown leading Whitman 49 percent to 44 percent in the California governor's race.
About one in five California voters are Latino. Registered voters who call themselves Latino favor Brown by 19 points over Whitman, who had made numerous direct appeals to Latino voters.
"If Whitman considered Santillan a part of her extended family, completely washing her hands of Santillan after nine years upon hearing she was an undocumented worker can be perceived as an uncaring billionaire trying to avoid a housekeepergate situation as she considered running for public office,". Critical Contests: Interactive Map with CBS News' Election 2010 Race Ratings
Brian Montopoli is a political reporter for CBSNews.com. You can read more of his posts here. Follow Hotsheet on Facebook and Twitter.