WASHINGTON - Former New York City Police Commissioner Bernard Kerik abruptly withdrew his bid to become the next Secretary of Homeland Security last night, just seven days after President Bush announced he would nominate him to the top anti-terror post.
Kerik explained his decision in a statement, citing questions that had come up over the immigration status of a housekeeper and nanny he employed, information Kerik said he discovered while preparing for his Senate confirmation. He said that "for a period of time" during the employment, required tax payments and other filings were not made, although he said he had begun efforts to fulfill outstanding obligations.
"It is my belief that upon disclosure of this matter the intense scrutiny that it is likely to generate will only serve as a significant and unnecessary distraction to the vital efforts of Department of Homeland Security," he said.
In a statement released last night, presidential press secretary Scott McClellan said, "The president respects his decision and wishes the commissioner and his wife, Hala, well." McClellan said the White House "will move as quickly as we can to name someone else to fill this nomination."
The tough-talking former commissioner - a familiar face at Ground Zero as he helped lead New York's rescue efforts after the 9/11 attacks - was set to become a star of Bush's Cabinet. With a compelling personal story and a natural empathy for first responders, he was positioned as a charismatic stand-out amid a city of bureaucrats.
But not all the media attention had been positive. Kerik's withdrawal, which came as a surprise last night, followed a growing number of embarrassing stories about alleged ethical lapses during his law enforcement career.
News reports in recent days also focused on revelations that Kerik had made millions of dollars on a stun gun company that sold weapons to the Homeland Security Department and wants more business. The White House had said that Kerik would avoid conflicts of interest.
Records filed with the Securities and Exchange Commission show that Kerik made $6.2 million by exercising stock options he received from Taser International. He has been a consultant for the company and serves on its board of directors, although the company and the White House said he planned to sever the relationship.
"I am a bit shocked - I thought a lot of the issues had already been addressed and pretty much satisfactorily dealt with," said retired New York City Police Sgt. Lenny Lemer, a friend of Kerik's. "I'm just really disappointed. I think he would have been good for the Department of Homeland Security. I think that he would have been one of the few people to be able to cut through all the bureaucracy."
Friends of Kerik's said last week that they were increasingly frustrated as old stories - and new ones - surfaced questioning Kerik's professional conduct. Profiles of Kerik brought up his controversial request that three New York City police officials investigate the death of his mother - a prostitute who was murdered when Kerik was a small boy - for what would become his best-selling memoir, The Lost Son: A Life in Pursuit of Justice. To some, cases such as this showed that Kerik was abusing his power as commissioner; to others, he was just a man asking friends for a favor.
"He didn't abuse his authority," said Lemer, one of the three officers who investigated the death of Kerik's mother. "There's a lot of misinformation put out there because a lot of people have an agenda."
Kerik repaid the city what it would have cost to hire private detectives. But this "cop's cop," whose personal story was so astonishing that it was optioned for a Miramax movie, has been dogged over his successful career by other questions about his record.
Still, Kerik was considered by many a shoo-in for confirmation by the Republican Senate.
Kerik, 49, had been selected by Bush to succeed Tom Ridge in the Cabinet-level position, heading a huge federal agency that was founded in reaction to the Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks against New York and Washington.
Kerik, a former Times Square beat officer in the mid-1980s and early 1990s known for tirelessly piling up large numbers of arrests, had a close relationship with former New York Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani. He served as police commissioner for 16 months from 2000 to 2001.
After a stint in Baghdad, where he helped organize the Iraqi police force, Kerik became an avid campaigner for President Bush, even speaking at the Republican National Convention last summer.
Kerik - with a shaved head and a black belt in karate - gained a GED and a mail-order college degree. A former undercover narcotics detective - muscle-bound and ponytailed, with three diamond studs in his ear - he seized millions of dollars of cocaine from the Cali drug cartel.
Kerik's unique experience with terrorism and his record in leading the nation's largest police force has brought him praise, especially by those concerned with the federal government's role in dispensing money to cities for homeland security.
Kerik began his law enforcement career as a warden at a New Jersey jail and became commissioner of the New York City Department of Correction. As police commissioner, Kerik kept crime levels low and was credited with improving the relationship between the police department and minority communities.
Kerik is chief executive officer at Giuliani Partners LLC, a consulting firm in New York City.
The Associated Press contributed to this article.