By Julie Manganis
SALEM — The Homeland Security official accused of encouraging her cleaning woman, an illegal immigrant, to stay in the country insisted yesterday that she intended to fire her, but assumed that the woman had already quit after being "spooked."
"I planned on telling her she could no longer work for me," Lorraine Henderson, 52, of Salem, told the jurors in U.S. District Court during more than three hours of testimony.
"I felt so bad having to fire her," she added.
Henderson was the $140,000-a-year, Boston-area director of Customs and Border Protection when officials learned that she had employed a Brazilian woman in the country illegally to clean her $335,000 condo.
Henderson told the woman she'd look into ways she could stay in the country, then in a series of notes asked how the woman entered the United States, if she had relatives here or had been convicted of a crime. Fabiana Bittencourt never returned to work cleaning her Brittania Circle condo, Henderson testified under questioning by her lawyer, Francis DiMento.
But, a prosecutor pointed out during her cross-examination, Henderson never made any effort to find out why or to return Bittencourt's calls.
Nor did she pass along the bad news that a colleague who specializes in immigration had given her: "I have some bad news," Cindy Sutton told her. "You have to hire a new cleaning woman."
Henderson said she had tried to wait for Bittencourt to arrive at the condo one morning to break the news in person — nearly two months after Bittencourt disclosed her illegal status in a conversation that was secretly recorded by agents.
All the while, prosecutor Diane Freniere pointed out in her cross-examination of Henderson, she continued paying Bittencourt, in cash, to show up and clean her condo every two weeks.
Henderson also explained why she hadn't taken action more than two years earlier, after a colleague first told her that Bittencourt was here illegally — and hinted that the co-worker's complaint to superiors about Henderson's continued use of Bittencourt was motivated by professional jealousy.
At the time Henderson's use of Bittencourt came to the attention of Homeland Security officials, in the spring of 2008, Henderson and her boss were discussing a promotion.
"Had this not happened, I'd probably be in LA (Los Angeles) right now," Henderson said.
Instead, officials began an investigation that led to Henderson's arrest on charges that she encouraged an illegal immigrant to remain in the country. She has been suspended from her job without pay and has been making ends meet by working at an area Petsmart, walking dogs and taking in a boarder.
When Nora Ehrlich, another Homeland Security official who lived in the same condo complex off Highland Avenue, told her in 2006, "Hey Lorraine, I had to fire Fabiana," Henderson said her first reaction was "Oh, my God, what happened?"
Henderson quoted Ehrlich as saying, "Well, I think she's illegal. I asked her if she had a green card and she started crying. "
Henderson's response to her colleague: "I said, 'yeah, whatever.'"
That's because, Henderson said, she often ignored Ehrlich. "A lot of conversations with Nora were unreasonable," Henderson told jurors. "Nora has a habit of taking a little bit of information and spinning it into something that doesn't exist."
Freniere pointed out that Ehrlich waited more than two years before going to superiors, having assumed that Henderson would also fire Bittencourt.
Freniere also questioned why Henderson insisted she told Ehrlich in 2006 that Bittencourt "couldn't be illegal" because she had a baby, even though Bittencourt's baby wasn't born until February 2008.
Throughout yesterday's testimony, Henderson repeatedly acknowledged her own ignorance about immigration laws, admitting that her assumption that having an American-born baby would let Bittencourt stay was completely wrong.
Closing arguments are expected to take place Monday morning.