WASHINGTON (CNN) – Workers of a company that hired illegal immigrants cleaned the home of top U.S. immigration official Michael Chertoff, and the Department of Homeland Security has accused the company's owner of deceiving the department chief.
"Every contractor in the United States has the responsibility of ensuring their workers are legal," DHS spokesman Russ Knocke said in a prepared statement given to CNN on Thursday.
"As soon as the Chertoffs learned that Mr. Reid deceived them by employing some unauthorized workers, they fired him."
The situation came to light when the owner of the company, James Reid, approached The Washington Post, which published an article on Thursday.
Reid, who owns Consistent Cleaning Services in Maryland, denied that he deceived the DHS secretary and his wife, whom he had worked for since Chertoff was named to the position in early 2005. Now, he is facing more than $22,000 in fines from U.S. Immigrations and Customs Enforcement, which is under DHS.
Reid told CNN's "American Morning" on Thursday that before he went to the Chertoffs' home, he provided the Secret Service with the employees' payroll information, their social security cards, work permits, passports or visas.
"Whatever information they provided me, I provided them," he said. The documents were checked again when Reid and the workers arrived at the Chertoffs' home.
"The same employees went into their house for year after year after year ... that they forced me to release," Reid said.
Every three months he would have to provide new documentation on the workers, he said. Reid said he determined four of his workers were undocumented, and fired them on his own. But he said that when ICE began its investigation earlier this year, it said six other employees were illegal immigrants and forced him to fire them.
He said those six workers, all women, had all the proper documentation and he personally escorted them into the Chertoffs' home after going through the security checks.
"I did not know they were undocumented," Reid said of the six women. "I figured I'd go to Homeland Security - I collected the information, I'd go to his house and after going to his house, I'd figure Secret Service just investigated them, so I'd figure they had to be legal."
"I had no questions about if they were legal."
Knocke, however, said while it is abundantly clear Reid employed unauthorized workers, it is unclear whether any of those illegal workers went into Chertoff's residence. Asked why the workers' unauthorized status did not come up during the routine Secret Service checks, Knocke noted that Reid's employee base and clientele was larger than just the Chertoffs.
DHS accused Reid of not doing his own background check on his workers, particularly through E-verify, a DHS-funded system that allows businesses to ensure that employees are legal.
"It is unfortunate that Mr. Reid did not acknowledge his own personal responsibility and check the eligibility of his work force," the statement from Knocke said.
But Reid maintains that he used a national payroll service to perform background checks, in addition to the Secret Service checks.
"I would think they would catch that after three years of taking ... what they say (were) illegal employees into their house, " Reid said. "They should have caught that a long time ago."
Knocke said Chertoff has been briefed on the situation, agreed the investigation should go forward, and recused himself from further involvement.
The DHS spokesman accused Reid of being a "disgruntled" former employee and an "opportunist" who has taken this opportunity to "vent his frustration."
Knocke said the Chertoffs were simply customers, and compared their employment of Reid's cleaning service to going to a restaurant and being told by the manager that a meal was properly served and the table was properly cleaned when it was not.
Reid told CNN the fine may force him out of business, and he has had trouble affording a lawyer. He said he sought help from his congresswoman, Rep. Donna Edwards, D-Maryland, and an immigrant advocacy organization in Maryland.
–CNN's Beth Rotatori contributed to this report