WASHINGTON - Senior administration officials defended yesterday the White House review of Bernard B. Kerik's background before his nomination as secretary of homeland security. One official said that even "controversial" material uncovered in a weeklong review had not appeared to endanger Kerik's confirmation.
In interviews, the officials denied that the White House review of Kerik's background had been rushed. Scott McClellan, President Bush's press secretary, said, "It was a very thorough vetting process" that "looked at all the issues relating to his public, financial and personal background." But they insisted there had been no way to discover - without Kerik's volunteering the information - that his family's nanny was most likely an illegal alien or that he had not paid the proper taxes related to her employment. It was that issue alone, they say, that terminated his nomination.
The review of Kerik's record was centered in the office of the White House counsel, Alberto R. Gonzales, who is in the midst of the preconfirmation process as the president's nominee to succeed John Ashcroft as attorney general.
Administration officials seemed eager yesterday to dispel any notion that Gonzales' office short-circuited the process in Kerik's case or was not alert to potential problems in his background. They described a vetting process more intense than usual before a presidential nomination, arguing that Kerik brought his troubles on himself by not flagging the issue of his housekeeper despite repeated questioning on the subject.
All the officials with knowledge of the vetting of Kerik's record insisted on anonymity, and they declined to go into detail about questionable issues they had reviewed involving Kerik's past, saying that would violate his privacy.
But one official said the White House spent more time than most with Kerik "because he was someone with a colorful background, and there was a good deal in the public domain - much of it favorable, some of it controversial." The official said Kerik had "major supporters" from New York, including former Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani and the state's two Democratic senators, Hillary Rodham Clinton and Charles E. Schumer.
Those recommendations, the officials insisted, did not compromise the review before Bush's announcement Dec. 3 that Kerik was his nominee for the domestic security post. But they noted that Kerik's past had received some scrutiny from his days as New York's police commissioner, when he held a security clearance so the FBI could discuss threats against New York with him.
Still, they insisted that they had approached Kerik's appointment with care and that they had taken their time. They described many hours of discussions with Kerik involving the office of presidential personnel and officials from Gonzales' office, stretching out over a number of days.
They declined to say whether they had engaged private investigators to learn more about Kerik's past or whether they had obtained nonpublic credit histories that might have revealed further details about financial troubles concerning a condominium he owned in New Jersey. Nor did they say whether they had examined the nature of his relationship to Interstate Industrial of New Jersey, a company that he apparently tried to help several years ago, despite questions about its apparent ties to organized crime.