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Transition of Power: Political Storm Brewing Around Bush Labor Nominee; Liberal Groups Voice Opposition to Ashcroft as Attorney General

Aired January 9, 2001 - 2:26 p.m. ET

THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.

NATALIE ALLEN, CNN ANCHOR: George W. Bush is heading to Washington, and he does have a growing storm around his labor nominee, Linda Chavez. And he also has questions surrounding John Ashcroft as well for attorney general. We'll talk about that in a moment.

But right now, we're back to CNN's Eileen O'Connor, who's in Washington, to tell us more about what's unraveling with his labor secretary nominee -- Eileen.

EILEEN O'CONNOR, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, there is certainly a storm brewing here in Washington over the nomination of Linda Chavez. And people who are being interviewed by the FBI, and legal sources of those being interviewed, are telling us that the FBI is talking to people who worked in the Chavez home or were neighbors of the Chavez's during the time when Marta Mercado was actually living in the Chavez home. And they are wondering if -- the FBI wants to know, was Marta Mercado doing chores in exchange for money or room and board, which could be employment? and when Chavez knew that Marta Mercado was here illegally; also, if Chavez helped Mercado find a job.

Mercado says she went to live with Chavez with the understanding she was going to help Mercado find work. Chavez says Mercado was a house guest who did some picking up out of kindness, and that she did give her money, but that this also was out of kindness.

Now, Mercado says that Chavez did give her money at times, but just on any given day, not directly in exchange for the chore or after the chore was completed. But she did say that, at times, she was instructed to do certain tasks.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

MARTA MERCADO, GUATEMALAN IMMIGRANT: What I remember is, you know, she used to travel often. And, yes, sometimes after I -- before she leaving, she asked me some things like, you know, taking the dogs out or pick up some things, you know. She has two teenagers back then, and you know how teenagers are. You know, they mess the house and everything. So I did things like that.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

O'CONNOR: Now, Mercado says that after those trips, she did often get money from Chavez, but she also got it at other days. And the other question the FBI is asking is when did Linda Chavez know that Mercado was illegal? Chavez says that she only knew right before Mercado left her home to go back to Guatemala. But Mercado says that Chavez actually knew about a year before she left the house, and that, in fact, Chavez said that she would help her by sponsoring her green card.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

MERCADO: I feel that, yes, sometimes she was worried. You know, when she knew everything about me, she was worried about my situation.

O'CONNOR: And?

MERCADO: I don't know. Yes, and one time she told me that she wanted to help me, you know, to -- if she could be my sponsor to get my green card. But I think she didn't know how she could do that. And I went to somewhere to get information, but I got disappointed because they told me that if she qualifies, it was going to take, you know, many years. So -- and then later I decided to go back to my country.

O'CONNOR: So when she offered to be a sponsor and you went -- who did you go see, an immigration lawyer or...?

MERCADO: No, I went to a center in -- it's in Silver Spring. They call it -- how was that? La Commonita Latina (ph)? Yes, Commonita Latina. That's in Piney Branch and Flower.

O'CONNOR: Huh, Muddy Branch?

MERCADO: No, Piney Branch...

O'CONNOR: Oh, Piney Branch, OK.

MERCADO: ... and Flower Avenue. I don't know.

O'CONNOR: And so when she offered to sponsor you, was that about a year before you left or...?

MERCADO: Yes, about a year before I left.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

O'CONNOR: Now, another thing that the FBI is trying to determine is it -- did Linda Chavez try to coach Mercado or her neighbors who had employed Mercado as a house maid for them. And they are also -- they are questioning those neighbors. They also questioned Mercado again. Mercado says that Chavez did not coach her. They said that she says that she called Chavez and that they did talk and try to refresh their memory about the events, but that Chavez also told her, encouraged her to talk to the FBI, and also said that she could talk to anyone that she wanted to.

Now, Democrats on Capitol Hill say that these allegations are troubling. They say, though, that they are not going to center their focus on whether she harbored an illegal immigrant, an act of potential kindness, really, an act of kindness. But they're not going to attack her on that, but they say they will attack her, they say, on the hypocrisy that Linda Chavez -- of when she attacked Zoe Baird, who had also hired a illegal immigrant when she was nominated for attorney general.

ALLEN: All right, Eileen O'Connor, thank you.

And in a moment, we will talk with an immigration lawyer about this case, so stay with us for that.

Liberal groups today launched a strong attack on another Bush nominee, that for attorney general. He is John Ashcroft.

CNN national correspondent Bob Franken joins us with that story -- Bob.

BOB FRANKEN, CNN NATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: And the groups were across the liberal spectrum. They including environmental groups, they included gun control groups, they included abortion rights groups, women's rights groups, civil rights groups. All of them lined up against John Ashcroft, who they say is a doctrinaire conservative who cannot be counted on to ignore his personal views in enforcing the laws of the land when he would be attorney general operating at the Justice Department. As I said, this was a coalition of groups that crossed the spectrum on the left.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: He has worked to criminalize abortion even in the cases of rape or incest.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: For a man who has taken a position to eliminate all equal opportunity programs in our nation, yet to put in a position to protect those same equal opportunity programs in our nation is unacceptable.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Sen. Ashcroft also has an absolutely perfect record of abandoning gay Americans at every turn; and most often abandoning people with AIDS and HIV.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

FRANKEN: Now, these organizations say that they're going to try and convince members of the Senate they should ignore the long- standing tradition where they support their own and routinely approve nominations such as this. They're going to try and rev up a grassroots campaign. But Ashcroft and his supporters, including President George W. Bush, say that he is assured that he will, in fact, enforce the law of the land as he runs the Justice Department, and that his record, for instance, on civil rights is one of strong support for civil rights, just the kind of support that comes from a conservative and not a liberal.

A big fight is brewing. We're expecting hearings that will be run by the temporarily Democratic-controlled Senate next week -- Natalie.

ALLEN: All right, Bob Franken. Thanks, Bob.

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