The nation's top immigration cop unknowingly used a company that hired illegal immigrants to clean his home for about three years, starting in 2005.
Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff hired the Maryland-based Consistent Cleaning Services to clean his home in the D.C. suburbs every few weeks for the past three years until an investigation conducted by one of his department's agencies discovered the company hired illegal workers.
An Immigration and Customs Enforcement investigation, which began in January, culminated in charges against the owner of the cleaning company, James Reid, who was fined $22,800 in October, according to a homeland security official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because the investigation is ongoing. Nine of Reid's employees were found using fraudulent documents, and 11 did not produce the appropriate forms to verify that they were legally allowed to work in the United States, the official said.
The investigation has not proven that any of the illegal workers actually cleaned Chertoff's home, the official said.
The company had cleaned Chertoff's home every few weeks for $185 since 2005. Chertoff became aware of the situation in April, fired the company and recused himself from the investigation, the official said.
Company owner James Reid did not immediately return phone calls. But in an interview with The Washington Post, Reid said, "Our homeland security can't police their own home. How can they police our borders?"
The Post first reported the story Thursday. Reid told the paper that the fines he faces could put him out of business.
Chertoff spokesman Russ Knocke said contractors are responsible for ensuring that their employees can work in the U.S. legally. "As customers, the Chertoffs obtained assurances from Mr. Reid that any personnel he dispatched to their home were authorized to work in the United States," Knocke said in a statement Thursday.
The Secret Service screens all workers at the Chertoff residence. The screening includes criminal history checks, physical screening and an agent escort while on the premises, Secret Service spokesman Eric Zahren said.
"This matter illustrates the need for comprehensive immigration reform, and the importance of effective tools for companies to determine the lawful status of their work force," Knocke said.
Speaking Oct. 23 on the state of immigration, Chertoff boasted about his department's record year for worksite enforcement cases - which led to more than 6,000 arrests.
He also said, "We need to make sure our own house is in order," referring not to his own home, but to the federal government, which now is required to use a federal online database to check whether the workers are in the country legally.
To solve the immigration problem, Chertoff has said the next administration will need to go back to Congress for comprehensive reform. When Congress failed to pass a comprehensive immigration overhaul in 2007, the administration kicked up its enforcement of the immigration laws already on the books.
Pressure to revisit immigration reform will build quickly on President-elect Barack Obama's administration and the new Congress, from Latino supporters, immigration groups and some business interests. But House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., has said Democrats may have to give up some of their priorities - such as giving illegal immigrants a path to citizenship - to get an agreement.
Before Chertoff was nominated to be homeland security secretary, President George W. Bush selected former New York City Police Commissioner Bernard Kerik for the job. Kerik withdrew his name after acknowledging he had not paid all taxes for a family nanny-housekeeper and that the woman may have been in the country illegally.