The morning after the first debate of the governor's race, and six days before mail ballots go out, Meg Whitman woke up to a candidate's nightmare.
In an explosive allegation that rocked the tech billionaire's campaign, her former housekeeper said Whitman knew for years she was an illegal immigrant but fired her only after deciding to run for governor.
"I felt she was throwing me away like a piece of garbage," Nicandra Diaz Santillan, of Union City, said in a tearful news conference. She alleged Whitman said when she fired her, "You have never seen me, and I've never seen you."
The housekeeper's high-profile attorney, Gloria Allred, said her 39-year-old client was "exploited, disrespected, humiliated and emotionally and financially abused" by the former eBay CEO, who is running against Democrat Jerry Brown.
Even before the news conference was held in Los Angeles, Whitman's campaign dismissed the allegation as politically motivated, noting that Allred, a Democrat, has a history of injecting eleventh-hour accusations into campaigns.
"Everything Gloria Allred is saying is a lie," Whitman told reporters during a campaign appearance at Cisco Systems in San Jose. She added that Diaz was "being manipulated, and I'm sorry for that."
Allred's allegation that Whitman ignored requests from federal officials to determine Diaz's immigration status could upend what has been a campaign juggernaut -- provoking charges that Whitman has been hypocritical on immigration, broke the law and sought to cover up her misdeeds.
On the campaign trail, and as recently as Tuesday night's debate with Brown, Whitman has called for tougher sanctions against employers who hire illegal workers.
"We do have to hold employers accountable," she said at the debate.
Allred also accused Whitman of cheating Diaz out of years' worth of wages, implying she used the maid's illegal status as leverage. Allred has filed a claim with the state against Whitman, which if supported could lead to fines and restitution.
Allred intends to fire another shot this morning.
"Now that she has denied it, we will release (more) evidence tomorrow," Allred said late Wednesday in an e-mail to the Mercury News.
The allegations also came just before Saturday's scheduled debate in Fresno, where Brown and Whitman will be questioned by a panel of Latino journalists. Attracting Latino voters is key if Whitman hopes to overcome the Democratic Party's statewide registration advantage.
"This has to hurt badly," said Jaime Regalado, director of the Pat Brown Institute of Public Affairs at Cal State Los Angeles.
Allred said at the news conference that the Social Security Administration sent Whitman a letter dated April 22, 2003, saying the Social Security number provided for Diaz did not match the name on file.
Allred said Diaz was told to "check on this" but was never asked again about it. Diaz also says that for several more years, Whitman received other letters from the Social Security Administration but threw them in the trash.
Whitman, however, told reporters that she hadn't received any such correspondence.
She added that Diaz was hired through an employment agency she relied on to check the worker's information.
Asked repeatedly for the name of the agency, the Whitman campaign declined to release it.
Lowell Kepke, a spokesman for the Social Security Administration, said in an e-mail to the Mercury News that he couldn't confirm or deny that a "no-match letter" was sent to Whitman's household because "wage and tax data" is protected by the Internal Revenue Code.
Whitman said she fired Diaz as soon as the housekeeper admitted in June 2009 that she was in the country illegally. "No one could've been more stunned than I was," Whitman said.
Asked why she had never used the story during the campaign as an example of how employers can be duped, she said: "It never came up." She added that she was reluctant to single out Diaz as an example, given that the housekeeper had been so close to Whitman's family.
Whitman said the incident underscores the need for an electronic verification system to check workers' documentation.
Because Diaz could face deportation by coming forward, Allred called her client's decision to speak out "the most courageous decision I've seen in 35 years of practicing law."
Allred said she was only recently contacted by Diaz, who got her name from another attorney.
The Diaz Santillan family lives in a tidy house in a quiet neighborhood of Latino and Asian families in Union City. A next-door neighbor remembered that the family moved in about two or three years ago and kept to themselves.
"They seem like very nice people," said Remedio Zimmerman.
A young man at the house declined to comment, saying Allred's office had told family members not to talk to the media.
Allred said Diaz in August 2000 was hired to work 15 hours a week at $23 an hour to clean Whitman's 3,700 square-foot Atherton house. But soon, "nanny duties were added to her job," including running errands for which her client was not reimbursed.
According to Allred, Diaz complained that she couldn't perform all her duties in 15 hours per week, but the housekeeper "was told that 15 hours a week was all that she would be paid for."
Mark Thierman, a Reno-based employment lawyer, said Diaz' claim would seem to fall under California Industrial Welfare Commission regulations for household employee compensation. Those rules put the burden of proof on the employer in such disputes.
"If the employer fails to keep records, then whatever the employee says in 'just and reasonable inferences' is to be believed," he said.
The agency's website says such claims may result in formal or informal hearings between the parties and, ultimately, orders for payment, which can be appealed to a civil court.
The allegations also play into the characterization of Whitman as a bullying CEO who mistreats those below her. Earlier this year, a New York Times story reported that she had to pay a $200,000 settlement for shoving an eBay employee.
Whitman's hopes of containing the potential damage rests on whether Allred can prove that Whitman knew Diaz was an undocumented worker, said John Pitney, government professor at Claremont McKenna College.
"The open question is whether people will see this as a legitimate outpouring of somebody in difficult straits or if they're being manipulated by the Brown campaign," Pitney said.
Brown's campaign kept its distance from the allegations for much of the day, sensitive to charges Allred is trying to bolster the former governor, to whom she has contributed $1,150 over the years. She said on CNN in 2007 that she knows Brown "personally," though she reportedly supported Bill Clinton in the 1992 presidential elections.
Brown spokesman Sterling Clifford later said in a statement that Whitman apparently thinks the rules don't apply to her.
"From the start, Meg Whitman has failed to tell Californians the truth -- about her voting record, her positions on climate change, her history of conflict with staffers or about Jerry Brown."
Clifford said Brown and his wife use a well-known national housekeeping service that comes twice a month to their home in the Oakland Hills.
Mercury News staff writers Lisa Fernandez, Joe Rodriguez and Brandon Bailey contributed to this report. Contact Ken McLaughlin at email@example.com.