WASHINGTON — Bernard Kerik apologized to President Bush on Saturday after questions about the immigration status of a housekeeper-nanny he employed led the former New York City police commissioner to withdraw his nomination as homeland security chief.
"I owe the president an enormous amount of gratitude for this consideration. I owe him a great apology that this may have caused him and his administration a big distraction," Kerik said in a telephone interview with The Associated Press from his home in Franklin Lakes, N.J.
"I'm going to spend some time with my family. I'm going to work on getting messages out to people close to me who have been supportive, apologizing for the embarrassment," Kerik said.
The surprise withdrawal late Friday sends Bush back in search of a Cabinet official to help guard the country against terrorists.
Nanny's legal status in question
While assembling paperwork for his Senate confirmation, Kerik said he uncovered questions about the immigration status of a housekeeper-nanny that he employed. As homeland security secretary, Kerik would oversee the Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency.
"I am convinced that, for personal reasons, moving forward would not be in the best interests of your administration, the Department of Homeland Security or the American people," Kerik said in a letter to Bush.
Video: Giuliani reaction Former New York mayor Rudy Giuliani, a close friend of Kerik's, said he was "heartbroken" by the withdrawal, but that Kerik had no other choice.
"Every time immigration issue came up this would be a problem," said Giuliani.
Had he continued "it would have been a bitter, difficult battle that probably would have ended without him getting confirmed," said Giuliani. "...The irony of this is he's about as qualified as you could possibly be for this job."
In the AP interview, Kerik said that on Wednesday he discovered financial records "that led me to question the tax filings regarding a housekeeper and nanny that was employed by me in my house, a very nice woman, a very good woman, someone who loves my children and they love her."
By Friday afternoon, Kerik said, "I came to realize that that there was not only a problem with the filings, there may have been a question with regard to her legal status in the country.
"Based on that, and based on precedent, and really it was the most important that this was the right thing to do, I contacted the White House late yesterday afternoon and told them I would like to withdraw my name."
In the letter to Bush, Kerik said he could not allow personal matters to "distract from the focus and progress of the Department of Homeland Security and its crucial endeavors."
Kerik was among a small group of leaders who became the face of the response to the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, often directing Manhattan's response alongside of then-Mayor Rudolph Giuliani.
When Bush announced Kerik's nomination last week, he won early support in Republican and some Democratic quarters.
But others questioned whether Kerik had the management experience to continue the nearly 2-year-long effort to meld the Homeland Security Department, which has more than 180,000 employees from 22 federal agencies.
Democrats also were focusing on Kerik's recent financial windfall from exercising stock options in a stun gun company that does business with the Department of Homeland Security. He earned $6.2 million from the options received from Taser International.
Meantime, Newsweek reported on its Web site Friday night that a New Jersey judge in 1998 had issued an arrest warrant as part of a series of lawsuits related to a New Jersey condominium owned by Kerik. The magazine said it faxed documents, including the arrest warrant, to the White House at around 6 p.m. Friday, asking for comment, but did not receive any immediate response from either Kerik or the White House.
Sources close to Kerik and the White House insisted the arrest warrant did not influence his decision to withdraw, saying the immediate issue was the nanny problem, Newsweek said.
'Nanny problem' not new
Kerik's announcement marked an unusual disruption in the White House's normally well-choreographed personnel moves. But he is not the first prominent government official to fall victim to the "nanny problem."
Video: Nanny no-go Similar issues killed the nominations of three candidates for top administration posts in the Clinton administration. That includes Zoe Baird, who was forced to withdraw her name from consideration to be attorney general after the disclosure she had not paid Social Security taxes for a housekeeper, an illegal immigrant.
When Bush set up his first Cabinet in 2001, conservative commentator Linda Chavez also stepped aside as the nominee for labor secretary after it was disclosed that she had given money and shelter to an illegal immigrant who once did chores around her house.
While Kerik confided in a close circle of associates, the announcement came as a surprise to many government insiders.
One administration official helping prepare Kerik for Senate confirmation, speaking on condition of anonymity, said his decision shocked senior Homeland Security leaders.
Finding a replacement
As recently as midday Friday, the White House had defended Kerik against questions of conflict of interest involving his relationship with Taser. Now, Bush is turning his attention to finding a replacement.
Among those mentioned as possible candidates before Kerik was chosen were Joe Allbaugh, a former director of the Federal Emergency Management Agency; Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Mike Leavitt and White House homeland security adviser Fran Townsend.
Others believed to be interested in the job include Asa Hutchinson, Homeland Security undersecretary for border and transportation security.
Kerik's first anti-terrorism work was as a paid private security worker in Saudi Arabia. He joined the New York Police Department in 1986, first walking a beat in Times Square.
In 2003, he took on a temporary assignment in Iraq to help rebuild the country's police force. Most recently, he has been a consultant for Giuliani Partners, working to rebuild Baghdad's police force.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.