Former New York Police Commissioner Bernard Kerik on Friday abruptly withdrew himself from consideration as the nation’s next Homeland Security chief, saying he had determined that a former household employee might have been an illegal immigrant.
Kerik’s unexpected withdrawal cast a temporary cloud over President Bush’s second-term Cabinet, and appeared likely to revive the contentious issues raised by the “nannygate” disclosures that derailed two of former President Clinton’s high-level nominees.
The debate could be particularly awkward because Kerik was Bush’s choice to head the department charged with enforcing the nation’s immigration laws, including policing the borders to prevent foreign nationals from crossing illegally.
“Commissioner Kerik informed the White House this evening that he is withdrawing his name for personal reasons from consideration for secretary of the Department of Homeland Security,” the White House said in a statement. “The president respects his decision, and wishes Commissioner Kerik and his wife, Hala, well.”
Kerik said in a statement he had learned of the potential immigration law violation as he was completing documents required for the Senate confirmation process.
“I uncovered information that now leads me to question the immigration status of a person who had been in my employ as a housekeeper and nanny,” Kerik said. “It has also been brought to my attention that for a period of time during such employment required tax payments and related filings had not been made.”
He said the inevitable controversy over the worker would “only serve as a significant and unnecessary distraction to the vital efforts of the Department of Homeland Security.”
In addition to the possible immigration law violation, Kerik in recent days has contended with news reports focusing on his business dealings since he left the New York Police Department in 2001, including his ties to a stun-gun maker that has sold weapons to the Department of Homeland Security.
Former New York Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani called Kerik’s withdrawal “very unfortunate” but said he had no choice.
“Bernie made a mistake ... and he had no choice but to withdraw,” given the precedent of the Clinton-era nominees, Giuliani said. In a telephone interview Friday night from New York, Giuliani said it was “Bernie’s conclusion and I completely agree with it.”
The nanny situation was “a recent one ... something fairly current,” Giuliani said. “It was after he had left city government.”
Giuliani said he believed that it was two nights ago that Kerik “first realized there was a problem here. And he spent most of the day Thursday going through it, came to the conclusion that there was a real problem and reported it to the White House.”
Asked if he would serve as Homeland Security secretary were the president to ask him, Giuliani replied crisply with a “No,” adding: “I have too many commitments.”
White House Press Secretary Scott McClellan told reporters that Kerik called Bush about 8:30 p.m. to inform him of his decision to withdraw from consideration. Bush’s nomination of Kerik was subject to Senate confirmation.
The White House will move as quickly as it can to name a new nominee, McClellan said in a conference call with reporters.
Among those on the initial short list were Rep. Christopher Cox (R-Newport Beach), chairman of the House Select Committee on Homeland Security; Asa Hutchinson, undersecretary of Homeland Security for border and transportation security, who has since been mentioned as a candidate for Arkansas governor; Frances Townsend, White House homeland security advisor; Joe Allbaugh, former administrator of the Federal Emergency Management Agency; Joseph Hagin, White House deputy chief of staff for operations; Navy Secretary Gordon R. England; former Virginia Gov. James S. Gilmore; Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney; and Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Michael Leavitt.
The potential immigration problem cited by Kerik appeared similar to those that caused two of Clinton’s first-term nominees to withdraw themselves from consideration.
Zoe Baird, Clinton’s initial choice for attorney general, pulled out after disclosing she had not paid Social Security taxes for a housekeeper who was an illegal immigrant. Kimba Wood, another Clinton pick for the attorney general’s job, dropped out after reporting she had hired an illegal immigrant as a baby-sitter. She had paid the required Social Security taxes and broken no laws.
Kerik, a career law enforcement officer who was New York City’s police commissioner during the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, was nominated Dec. 3 to replace Tom Ridge as director of Homeland Security.
Supporters of Kerik who watched him lead the New York Police Department through the attacks on the World Trade Center said he was up to the job. New York’s two Democratic senators, Charles E. Schumer and Hillary Rodham Clinton, had backed the choice.
However, in addition to the problem with his nanny and housekeeper, a number of other issues from Kerik’s colorful past have come to light that could have prompted questions in a confirmation hearing.
Earlier Friday, White House officials had defended Kerik in response to questions about possible conflicts of interest stemming from his business dealings since stepping down three years ago as New York City’s police commissioner.
News accounts in recent days have focused on Kerik’s arrangements with companies selling stun guns, prescription drugs, computer software, personal security products and services, nuclear power, telephone service and insurance policies.
“We’ve looked into all these issues, and obviously, he’ll be talking about some of these matters during his confirmation hearing,” McClellan said in his afternoon news briefing.
He added: “We have full confidence in his integrity and we are confident that he will take the appropriate steps necessary to make sure that there are no conflicts there.”
Kerik was police chief under then-Mayor Giuliani, and has worked closely with his former boss at Giuliani Partners, a strategic consulting firm in New York, a lucrative partnership for the former police commissioner.
Bush encountered Kerik in the days following the Sept. 11 attacks. Kerik was later tapped for duty in Iraq, where his programs helped increase the Iraqi police force from about 30,000 to more than 80,000 in late 2003.
But his successors cut the force to about 46,000 this year by weeding out corrupt and ill-trained officers. After Kerik left, officials concluded that the short-term training was not working and revamped the program.
Newsweek reported that while Kerik was police commissioner, the NYPD bought four $50,000 security doors for police headquarters. They turned out to be too heavy for the floor to support. One of them was used by the Department of Corrections, and the other three were put in storage. A police department investigation found irregularities in the bidding process.
After leaving the NYPD, Newsweek reported, Kerik became an advisor to a company distributing the doors, though he renounced his deal after the door-maker’s president was indicted for defrauding the city.
As head of Homeland Security, Kerik would have overseen a department that does business with several security clients of Giuliani Partners, notably Taser International of Scottsdale, Ariz., which makes stun guns.
Kerik was a member of the company’s board and received stock options in the company that were valued at more than $6.2 million by the time he recently sold them, the New York Times reported Friday. The newspaper said that Kerik had referred Taser executives seeking more federal business to officials at Homeland Security.
Trouble often followed Kerik. As a young soldier in South Korea, he fathered a child out of wedlock. As NYPD commissioner, he was fined $2,500 for sending two police officers to Ohio to help research his bestselling 2001 memoir, “The Lost Son: A Life in Pursuit of Justice.”
When the book’s publisher, Judith Regan, reported her cellphone stolen after a visit to a Fox Television studio, detectives reportedly showed up at the homes of Fox employees who had been on the set at the time.
A Senate GOP aide speculated about Kerik’s withdrawal: “It was probably a mounting list of potentially embarrassing issues, and they decided to cut their losses before it got worse. Good timing too: late on a Friday night.”
Times staff writer Richard Simon contributed to this report.