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White House pins blame on Kerik

White House officials on Saturday blamed Bernard B. Kerik for repeatedly failing to disclose potential legal problems to administration lawyers vetting his nomination to be homeland security secretary.
Former New York City Police Commissioner Bernard Kerik with President George W. Bush
When first tapped by President Bush to head the Department of Homeland Security, former New York City Police Commissioner Bernard Kerik never disclosed having employed an illegal immigrant or withheld tax payments, White House officials said Saturday.Manny Ceneta / AFP-Getty Images
/ Source: a href="" linktype="External" resizable="true" status="true" scrollbars="true">The Washington Post</a

White House officials yesterday blamed Bernard B. Kerik for repeatedly failing to disclose potential legal problems to administration lawyers vetting his nomination to be homeland security secretary, as President Bush prepared to quickly name a replacement and try to put the controversy over the former New York police commissioner's background behind him.

Kerik, who withdrew his own nomination Friday and apologized yesterday for embarrassing Bush, was asked numerous times by White House lawyers if he had employed an illegal immigrant or failed to pay taxes on domestic help, the sources said.

Kerik was told he would humiliate his family, himself and the president if he lied on either account, the officials said. He responded with firm denials. After digging deeper, however, Kerik said he discovered last week that he might have a problem on both accounts and withdrew his name.

Red flags missed
In the vetting process, which was conducted by the office of White House counsel Alberto R. Gonzales, Kerik also never mentioned that a New Jersey judge had issued a warrant for his arrest in 1998 over a civil dispute over unpaid bills, the sources said. The existence of the dispute was first reported by .

It is unclear why White House lawyers could not uncover a warrant that Newsweek discovered after a few days of research, although some are blaming Bush's insistence on speed and secrecy for failing to catch this and other potential red flags in Kerik's background.

White House officials said they believe Kerik could have survived a controversy over the warrant in a civil matter, despite having served as New York City police commissioner and being nominated to lead an agency with major law enforcement responsibilities.

Joseph Tacopina, Kerik's lawyer, said his client was not aware of the warrant, which stemmed from a dispute over about $5,000 in condominium fees. In an interview, Tacopina said there are no outstanding warrants for Kerik but he could not "confirm or deny" there once was one. A copy of the warrant was provided to The Washington Post by Newsweek.

Still, it is the nanny controversy, according to White House officials, that cost Kerik a high-profile job. "This is my responsibility, this is my mistake," Kerik said outside his home in Franklin Lakes, N.J., in an interview broadcast by CNN yesterday. "I didn't want this to be a distraction going forward."

Search quickly resumes
Bush plans to move quickly to name a replacement, although the few White House officials with knowledge of the shortlist would not speculate or respond to calls.

Other Republicans inside and out the White House said potential replacements include White House homeland security adviser Frances Fragos Townsend; White House deputy chief of staff for operations Joseph Hagin; Asa Hutchinson, undersecretary for transportation and border security at Homeland Security; and Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Mike Leavitt. An announcement is expected before Christmas.

Two sources said Bush is courting Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman (D-Conn.) for an administration job, but it is not clear whether homeland security could be the one.

Bush did not say anything about the matter yesterday, but he teased reporters by cupping his hand to his ear as he walked across the White House's South Lawn to his helicopter, as if to invite a question. Asked whether he was upset about Kerik, the president smiled and cupped his hand to his ear again, even though he appeared to have heard the question.

Advance vetting rare
A full FBI field check of a nominee is sometimes completed in advance of Cabinet picks. Often, as in Kerik's case, it is not. A former administration official familiar with the appointment process said that Bush's system has produced remarkably few problems but that "perceived or actual political pressure to get appointments done quickly" often makes it impossible to do as much vetting as White House lawyers would like.

"A candidate can be so eager for appointment that he shades the truth. A candidate cannot perceive that he has a problem, when he does. A candidate can simply forget or overlook something," the official said.

Bush, White House Chief of Staff Andrew H. Card Jr., senior adviser Karl Rove and Dina Powell, head of presidential personnel, are usually the only ones outside the counsel's office aware of the selections. Once the pick is made, the counsel's office vets the candidate, asking scores of questions about personal relationships and finances, professional dealings, and criminal or improper behavior.

Records are reviewed and potential problems investigated. If nothing problematic arises, Bush makes the announcement — often before the FBI has conducted a background check. The FBI check is completed before the Senate confirms each pick.

The efficacy of Bush's process is in the results, officials said: Kerik is the second nominee in two terms to be withdrawn. Bill Clinton, by comparison, had two attorney-general nominees forced out and six total in two terms.

Process defended
Current officials dismiss criticism, saying it is virtually impossible to stop candidates from withholding information or lying to White House investigators. White House press secretary Scott McClellan said Bush remains confident about the screening process.

"The vetting process is a thorough and extensive one," McClellan said. "It's a process that looks at all the issues related to the nominee's financial, professional and personal background. It was Commissioner Kerik himself who said this was a matter he should have brought to our attention sooner."

The White House officials quoted anonymously in this story are in a position to know details of the controversy, and refused to speak on the record because they are not authorized to discuss the secretive selection and vetting process. Kerik's version of events, which did not differ from the White House's, was provided by his lawyer; Rudolph W. Giuliani, the former New York mayor and business partner of Kerik's; and Kerik himself.

Giuliani, who recommended Kerik for the post, also called the White House yesterday and apologized.

The Homeland Security Department has sparked controversy for Bush since its inception. He initially opposed the department but succumbed to pressure from Democrats and Republicans in Congress to create it. Then Bush was criticized when some GOP allies questioned the patriotism of Democrats such as Sen. Max Cleland (Ga.) for refusing to embrace the president's version of the department.

Once it was up and running, the department served up two of the most ridiculed White House decisions of the first term: alerting the public to buy duct tape and plastic sheeting in case of a terrorist attack, and implementing a confusing color-coded terrorism alert system.

DHS in disarray
More than two years after its creation, the department is viewed by many Democrats and Republicans as too bureaucratic and in dire need of a shake-up and strong leadership. Kerik, a tough-talking former street cop, was viewed by Bush as the perfect panacea. Bush hailed the former police commissioner as tough enough to guard the nation from future attacks.

The two shared an emotional bond over the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, which forced the two men to help comfort the nation, rebuild a city and launch a worldwide hunt for the perpetrators.

White House officials said senators, including several Democrats, confirmed that the nomination was on track, despite a host of questions about Kerik's quick riches after leaving public office and his responsibility for training the Iraqi police force on a mission for the administration.

The nanny problem put a quick end to the nomination, just as it did for Linda Chavez as Bush's first nominee for labor secretary, and three high-profile nominees for Clinton: Zoe Baird, his first choice as attorney general; Lani Guinier, who had been chosen to head the Justice Department's civil rights division; and Kimba M. Wood, a federal judge whose nomination as attorney general did not go forward.

Kerik told reporters yesterday that he discovered on Wednesday he had not paid taxes on a Mexican-born nanny and housekeeper who was probably working illegally in the country. Tacopina, his lawyer, said she worked for Kerik for about 18 months and had returned to Mexico six weeks ago, in keeping with a plan she had for several months. Tacopina called the nanny question was "the sole reason he withdrew."

Kerik insisted he was unaware of the problem until last week; White House officials privately said he was lying or showed terrible judgment.

Kerik told the reporters on his lawn that over the previous two days or so, he "came to realize that in addition to some of the tax issues that I thought I may have, there may have been a question with regard to her legal status in this country."

Staff writer John Mintz and researcher Karl Evanzz contributed to this report.