Video: Kerik flap has White House scrambling

NBC News and news services
updated 12/13/2004 8:20:56 PM ET 2004-12-14T01:20:56

Bush administration lawyers who vetted former New York City police Commissioner Bernard Kerik before President Bush named him to head the Homeland Security Department knew he had a “colorful past” but concluded that his long record of public service would outweigh questions about his conduct, a senior U.S. official told NBC News on Monday.

The official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said that the lawyers were aware that Kerik had been questioned in a civil lawsuit involving questions about an alleged extramarital affair with a corrections employee; the failure to properly report financial gifts on disclosure forms; and an arrest warrant issued after he failed to pay condo fees.

“The lawyers looked at all these issues,” said the official. "We believed they were not disqualifying."

Immigration problem surfaced
Kerik asked Bush to withdraw his nomination late Friday following questions about an immigration problem involving a family housekeeper.

The administration official continued to insist Monday that it was that situation that led to Kerik's surprise withdrawal a week after Bush announced his selection.

But other allegations have emerged since Kerik's announcement.

The New York Daily News reported Monday that Kerik had two extramarital affairs in recent years — one with the corrections officer and another with New York book publisher Judith Regan.

On Sunday, the newspaper said that a six-month investigation showed Kerik had accepted thousands of dollars in cash and gifts without proper disclosure, and had ties to a construction company that investigators believe is linked to the mob.

And Newsweek reported Saturday that a New Jersey judge in 1998 had issued an arrest warrant for Kerik 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.

Despite the new allegations, White House spokesman Scott McClellan on Monday defended the vetting process that presidential appointments are subjected to before their nominations are announced.

"When you go through the vetting process, you go through a lot," he said. "... There is speculation going on, but it's just speculation."

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Giuliani apologizes to Bush
On Sunday, former New York mayor Rudolph Giuliani, at a preplanned dinner with President Bush, offered apologies to Bush for the abortive nomination of Kerik, a close associate, a Giuliani spokeswoman said.

Giuliani spokeswoman Sunny Mindel said in New York that the White House dinner Sunday had been planned several weeks ago. “The president was very gracious,” she said of the withdrawal of Kerik, who was Giuliani’s police commissioner and more recently a business associate. “They remain good friends.” Video: Kerik nomination falls apart

Earlier Sunday, Bush and Giuliani attended the taping of the annual “Christmas in Washington” concert, to be televised on the TNT cable network Dec. 15.

White House spokeswoman Suzy DeFrancis said she could not comment on whether the two also had dinner.

A day earlier, Kerik himself apologized to Bush. “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.

The administration official who spoke with NBC News on Monday said that the search for a replacement was well under way, but that an announcement was unlikely by day's end.

Financial records
In explaining his decision to withdraw, 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, he 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.

Lack of experience?
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.

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.”

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.

Possible replacement candidates
Among those mentioned as possible candidates before Kerik was chosen were Joe Allbaugh, a former director of the Federal Emergency Management Agency; 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.

NBC News' Norah O'Donnell and the Associated Press contributed to this report.

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