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By Jerry Roberts and Phil Trounstine, www.calbuzz.com.

After 19 months of mass market campaigning inside the most luxurious cocoon money could buy, Meg Whitman on Thursday suddenly found herself in the political free-fire zone.

For a second straight day, Whitman flailed away in unfamiliar territory, far from her comfort zone of message discipline and robotic recitations of talking points, as she and her army of high-priced purse-carriers desperately sought to spin and control a campaign crisis that kept spiraling out of control.

The meltdown was fueled by the undeniable facts that for nine years the privileged Republican candidate for governor employed an illegal alien as a housekeeper, and that this undocumented worker now was accusing her of having "treated me like garbage."

"This has nothing to do with my character," Whitman insisted to reporters at one point during a truly bizarre day in the campaign.

In fact, the white-hot controversy has everything to do with character, providing, for one of the few times in the race, a public test of her credibility, performance under pressure and ability to take responsibility and hold herself accountable for her own actions and decisions.

Alas, it is not a test she is passing with flying colors.

Calbuzz has noted several times before (here and here, for example) that Whitman has only a casual regard for the actual facts, relying instead on the Power of Money to shape the "truth" to fit her needs.

But here was a case of the billionaire prevaricator being exposed by a lowly Latina housekeeper who says she was told, after nine years of cleaning toilets: "You never have seen me and I have never seen you."

A brief recap: In an extraordinary day in California politics, Whitman's campaign convened a morning press conference in Santa Monica, to try to soothe a state press corps in full bay, and to put to rest the heated dispute over the candidate's long-term employment relationship with Nicky Diaz, her 31-year old former housekeeper.

For nearly an hour, Whitman answered questions by insisting she had done "absolutely" nothing wrong.

Constantly flashing a broad grin that seemed in its affect strangely out-of-sync with her words, she variously blamed, with the scantest of circumstantial evidence, Diaz and her attorney, Gloria Allred, public employee unions and Jerry Brown for concocting a mysterious conspiracy to "smear" her and to derail her campaign.

In her remarks to reporters, Whitman also stated categorically that she and her husband, Dr. Griffith Harsh, had never received or seen a purported 2003 "no-match" letter from the government that raised questions about Diaz's Social Security number, a document which might have alerted them to the fact that their Mexican-born employee was not legally in the U.S. (She even offered, in response to a silly question, to take a lie detector test -- a pledge she later conditioned on Jerry Brown taking one too. Right.)

Diaz had said, at a tearful press conference one day earlier, that Whitman's husband had given her this letter with instructions to "deal with this." But the candidate on Thursday expressed absolute certainty that she and her neurosurgeon husband knew nothing about any such document - "they may have sent something, but we never saw it" - and charged that Diaz might have stolen the letter from the mailbox and was now being "manipulated" to participate in the "politics of personal destruction" by the Allred-Brown-Jimmy Hoffa Cabal.

"All the allegations are completely untrue'' she said. "The Brown campaign and Gloria Allred are doing a massive smear campaign on me and my family."

Less than an hour later, however, the famously obnoxious celeb lawyer Allred aggressively smacked down Whitman with what she called "the smoking letter," an official government missive raising questions about Diaz's Social Security documentation. It was sent by the SSA, dated April 2003, and addressed to eMeg and her husband; for good measure, it also had a handwritten note on the bottom, in what Diaz said was Dr. Harsh's handwriting, instructing her to "check on this." Said Allred: "Meg Whitman is exposed as a liar and a hypocrite. She should now apologize to the press, the public and Nicky... Meg Whitman should be ashamed and embarrassed."

Soon after, the strange day took another strange turn, when Whitman strategists again summoned reporters, this time onto a conference call in which they tried to explain away Allred's evidence.

eMeg handler Rob Stutzman, who would neither confirm nor deny the handwriting was Dr. Harsh's, said: "What we have here is a letter that is seven years old. If this letter is authentic, Dr. Harsh very reasonably does not recall ever seeing it. And also, has the very reasonable and likely conclusion that if the letter is authentic, his frame of mind was completely focused on making sure that Nicky appropriately was going to receive her Social Security credit and therefore her benefit some day. Which makes sense, if that was the case, that he would leave a note, making sure she saw it and at some point would return it."

Well, that makes everything perfectly clear.

Pathetic lies: Far from putting the matter to rest, the shaky, if not panicked, daylong performance by the candidate and Team Whitman further undercut eMeg's credibility, as she made a series of formless and unsubstantiated accusations in an effort to deflect attention from her own actions:

Nicky stole the mail. On Wednesday, the Chron's Joe Garofoli asked eMeg this question:

"Did you ever receive any notification from the Social Security Administration or any other government agency that the number this housekeeper had provided did not match the name or that there was any other discrepancy with the papers that had been filed?"

Whitman answered flatly: "No."

At Thursday's press conference, she shifted gears, now admitting the possible existence of such a letter, but suggesting that if was sent, Diaz probably stole it from the mail.

"She may have intercepted the letter, it's very possible, I have no other explanation... Nicky did bring in the mail and sort the mail. If she got a letter two weeks before alerting her to a problem and saying we're going to alert your employer she might have been on the lookout for that letter... It pains me to say that because, gosh, that's not the Nicky I knew."

Gosh, it sure isn't.

(BTW, Griff stood by Meg's side when she was denying ever having received a letter from the Social Security Administration and did not say, "Oh wait, honey, I forgot to tell you. Nicky didn't swipe that letter, I read it, filled it out part way and wrote her a little note on it.")

Despite Whitman's defamatory comments about Diaz, whose version of events was confirmed by the document produced by Allred, Stutzman gruffly insisted there will be no apology from eMeg for having slimed her former employee.

"No... Nicky has willingly allowed herself to be used... It's unfortunate... But make no mistake: Nicky is participating in something that is 100% political and it is 100% designed to harm Meg's ability to succeed in this campaign."

Nicky Diaz, POW: Whitman said repeatedly that Diaz "doesn't know what she's gotten herself into," and is being "manipulated" by Allred, who's allegedly feeding her false things to say. (Does Whitman really think her former housekeeper, part of her "extended family," is that stupid and porous?)

At one point during her press conference, Meg rather astonishingly said: "I think Nicky had a gun to her head."

No word yet on what kind of gun or who's holding it.

Meanwhile, here's an alternative explanation: Diaz felt like she got royally screwed by Meg Whitman and the good doctor and figured she had some wages and expenses coming to her. (She was, after all, paid at a rate of $17,940 a year compared to the $20,770 per month that eMeg pays campaign consultant Mike Murphy.) So maybe she just decided to get herself a bad-ass lawyer to help her get what she thinks she's owed.

Of all the nerve.

It's all Jerry Brown's fault: "I absolutely believe this is linked to the Brown campaign, 100%," Meg said at her press conference. Not 98%, mind you, One Hundred Percent.

Former state Democratic party chairman Bill Press recapped her argument on MSNBC last night this way (we're paraphrasing here):

Meg Whitman employed an illegal immigrant for nine years.
When she found out, she fired her.
And whose fault is this? Jerry Brown's.

"We didn't hire an undocumented immigrant to work in our house," chimed in Brown flack Sterling Clifford, who figures prominently in the Whitman camp's evidence for their magic bullet theory.

Part of the proof of the evil plot that Team Whitman pointed to was a Spanish-language TV ad titled "Nueve Años," whipped up and released Thursday as part of a $5 million campaign by the Service Employees International Union. The ad says, in part: "Whitman attacks undocumented workers to win votes, but an undocumented woman worked in her home for nine years... Whitman says one thing in Spanish, something different in English. The real Meg Whitman has no shame. She's (tiene dos caras) a two-faced woman."

Meg's people also fingered a Wednesday night report on KTVU-TV, in which political reporter Randy Shandobil recounted a conversation he had with Clifford a couple of weeks ago, during which the spokesman told Randy that he'd heard Whitman had a "housekeeper problem" (his words, not Clifford's). Shandobil acknowledged that Clifford was "just passing along rumors."

We're shocked - shocked! - that a campaign operative was actually gossiping with a political reporter.

Psst, here's more breaking news: Calbuzz hereby admits that we sometimes talk off the record with campaign hacks and that they sometimes tell us about rumors they've heard that they think we should check out.

Truth be told, Calbuzz has actually done this with operatives from the Whitman campaign! We name no names. (And, unlike some, burn no sources.)

BTW, Calbuzz asked Stutzman on the conference call, even if Jerry Brown was behind exposing eMeg's employment of an illegal housekeeper, what difference would that make?

"What difference it makes is that this entire stunt, in the way it's been drawn out particularly over the last couple of days, is completely designed to influence a political race," Stutzman replied.

Asked Calbuzz: "What's wrong with that? This is a political race."

We didn't get a real answer before we were cut off.

Documents, what documents? Whitman points to the driver's license and Social Security card that Diaz presented when she first went to work for her and her husband back in 2000 as evidence that they had assurances Nicki was legal, even though they were being taken in by her.

To prove the point, they released a copy of an I-9 immigration service form that Diaz had signed swearing that she was legally in the country and authorized to work. The same form contains a line for the employer to sign, swearing that she has checked out the employee's documents and believes everything is on the up and up.

However, neither Meg nor Dr. Harsh signed Diaz's I-9 attesting to this.

When Whitman was questioned about her failure to sign on Thursday, she said: "I don't know whether we signed it or not."

Memo to Meg: you're the one who put out the document, girlfriend, go have yourself a read.

We always play by the rules: In describing her views on hiring household help, Whitman told reporters that she always insisted that they be legal.

A few minutes later, however, Whitman admitted that when Diaz went on maternity leave for three months, she was replaced by one of the housekeeper's friends, adding that she didn't know whether or not the second woman was legal and could not recall whether or not she made an effort to find out.

Claiming she would only hire "someone who was 100% legal," Meg assured reporters that, "Griff and I play by the rules."

Except when we don't.

For more California politcs from Calbuzz, go to: www.calbuzz.com

 

Follow Phil Trounstine on Twitter: www.twitter.com/ptrounstine