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A Cabinet Setback for Bush

Times Staff Writer

The abrupt withdrawal of the White House’s choice to head the Homeland Security Department is an embarrassing setback for President Bush’s effort to put his second-term Cabinet in place quickly and without controversy.

One day after acknowledging that a woman who was a domestic employee as recently as two weeks ago may have been an illegal immigrant, former New York Police Commissioner Bernard Kerik accepted blame for failing to unearth the problem and tell the White House before he was nominated to be secretary of Homeland Security.

“This is my responsibility,” Kerik told reporters in front of his New Jersey home Saturday morning, just a few hours after his withdrawal was announced late Friday night. “It was my mistake. It wasn’t a mistake made by the White House.”

Kerik’s withdrawal forces the White House to find someone else to fill one of the most important jobs in the Cabinet for Bush, who has made fighting terrorism his No. 1 priority.

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Even before Kerik’s nanny troubles surfaced, Democratic opponents and news organizations were mining his colorful and controversial record for evidence of possible conflicts of interest and other questions about his ethics.

Some analysts said that Bush had been in such a hurry to complete his Cabinet -- and to name a hero of the Sept. 11 attacks and protege of former New York Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani to a leading role -- that the White House did not catch obvious problems in Kerik’s background.

“The president violated every rule that guides the nominating process: Don’t announce until you vet,” said Paul Light, an analyst at the Brookings Institution who has studied the presidential appointment process. “They announced well before Kerik had filled out the most basic of paperwork.”

As a blunt-speaking outsider, Kerik broke the pattern set by Bush in filling other top Cabinet posts with longtime associates and loyal aides. But there was much in Kerik for Bush to like. He earned his stripes as police chief on the day New York suffered its traumatic terrorist attack. He was a favorite of Giuliani, who was a popular and active campaigner for Bush’s reelection in 2004. New York’s two liberal Democratic senators, Hillary Rodham Clinton and Charles E. Schumer, supported his nomination. And he had the kind of hard-knock life story that appeals to Bush.

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White House spokeswoman Clare Buchan denied that the administration was any more lax in screening Kerik’s background than it was with any other nominee.

“There is a standard vetting process that we go through with all nominees, and we did that with Commissioner Kerik,” she said. Of his replacement, Buchan said, “We certainly will work to name someone as quickly as possible.”

Another Republican close to the process predicted the White House would turn to a “safer” nominee.

“What Homeland Security needs most is a strong manager,” said an administration official who spoke on condition of anonymity. “It’s in danger of turning into a collection of agencies that aren’t very well-run and aren’t coordinated with each other.”

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Among those said to be on the short list are Asa Hutchinson, an assistant secretary of Homeland Security; Sean O’Keefe, NASA administrator; Joe Allbaugh, a close Bush associate and former head of the Federal Emergency Management Agency; and Fran Townsend, Homeland Security advisor in the White House.

Kerik’s withdrawal is the second time in as many weeks that the usually well-oiled White House machine has hit a glitch in putting Bush’s second-term Cabinet in place. Before Bush last week asked Treasury Secretary John W. Snow to stay in his post, news reports emerged saying that the president wanted Snow to leave and that the administration was considering other candidates. It was an unusual airing of internal dissent from an administration known for its disciplined message control.

The Kerik controversy was a bigger political headache, but it was not the first time that Bush had confronted the “nanny problem” that had derailed other Cabinet nominations in the last decade. In 2001, Bush nominated Linda Chavez to be secretary of Labor. Her nomination was withdrawn after it was revealed that she had hired an illegal immigrant.

At issue in Kerik’s case is a woman, whose name and nationality have not been revealed, who worked for him as a housekeeper and nanny for his children. She left the country about two weeks ago, under circumstances Kerik has not described.

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Kerik and Giuliani said that before the nomination was announced, White House officials had asked Kerik about his domestic employees, and he had indicated there were no problems. But in delving more deeply as he prepared federal paperwork last week, Kerik said, he discovered that he had owed back taxes on the employee.

Then he came to realize “there may have been a question as to her legal status in the country,” Kerik said Saturday. He said that conclusion -- and not any of the other elements of his record -- was the reason he called Bush on Friday night to withdraw his name from consideration.

Giuliani, who is Kerik’s business partner and had urged Bush to nominate Kerik to be Homeland Security chief, told reporters Saturday that the revelation about Kerik’s employee was an embarrassment to Kerik and his supporters: “We should have disclosed this; we should have found out earlier.”

Light said that the Clinton administration, which also had nominees derailed by questions about their domestic employees, responded to those earlier episodes by applying stricter scrutiny to potential nominees. Some candidates, Light said, were not just asked about their employees, as was Kerik. They were also required to provide documentation that their employees were legal and their taxes had been paid before a nomination could be announced.

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Giuliani told reporters in New York that he was “heartbroken” that Kerik was dropping out, but that there was no alternative. Because the Homeland Security secretary oversees immigration enforcement, Kerik could not be confirmed if he had employed an illegal worker.

“Every time an immigration issue came up, it would be a problem,” Giuliani said.

Senate Democratic aides said that Kerik’s confirmation fight in the Senate would have become protracted and messy, and not just because of his domestic employee.

A series of news reports in recent days have revealed a career riddled with controversy, including allegations of conflicts of interest stemming from his business dealings since stepping down as police commissioner and allegations that he improperly sent two police officers to conduct research for his autobiography.

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Newsweek this weekend reported that a New Jersey judge in 1998 had issued an arrest warrant as part of a series of lawsuits relating to unpaid bills on Kerik’s condominium. Giuliani said the warrant came in a civil proceeding that was resolved, and that the report had no bearing on Kerik’s decision to drop out of Cabinet consideration.

“He is a colorful guy,” said one Democrat who is following the nomination, speaking on condition of anonymity. “What the White House has learned the hard way is that there’s a difference between having a colorful past and having a checkered past.”

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Washington Bureau Chief Doyle McManus contributed to this report.

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