As Kerik's problems pile up, pressure to explain screening


WASHINGTON -- As details about Bernard Kerik's life have become public -- his connections to a company with possible mob ties, a third marriage he never disclosed and a 1998 warrant for his arrest over unpaid bills -- the White House is being pressured to explain why President Bush nominated the former New York City police commissioner to lead the Department of Homeland Security.

White House officials maintain that Kerik decided to withdraw from consideration for the nation's top anti-terrorism post after realizing he might have broken federal law when he hired a nanny who might have been an illegal immigrant and he did not pay taxes for her services. As homeland security chief, Kerik would have been in charge of enforcing immigration law.

But the nanny dispute was only the beginning of Kerik's potential problems. Why White House officials did not catch -- or worry about -- other warning signs remains an open question. The Bush White House had not hit a bump like it since Linda Chavez withdrew as the labor secretary nominee in 2001 -- after she acknowledged employing an illegal immigrant in her home.

Effect on Gonzales

The Kerik debacle, which embarrassed the president, could also be ill-timed for White House Counsel Alberto R. Gonzales, whose office handles much of the vetting of presidential appointees. Gonzales -- nominated for attorney general -- is preparing for his own hearings in the Senate.

"Somebody needs to say, 'Where was Alberto Gonzales?'" said Paul Light, a professor at New York University's Wagner School of Public Service who has studied presidential appointments. "This was a glaring error in the White House counsel's office.

"Here, the president said, 'This is the guy I want. He's endorsed by the mayor of New York. I like the guy; I like his story, so let's roll.'"

The Kerik affair opens the door for even tougher interrogation by Democrats who had already prepared questions for Gonzales about how he handled the vetting for some of Bush's judicial nominees. But one Democratic congressional aide and another person involved in preparations for Gonzales' confirmation hearings said they doubted the Kerik vetting would become a major issue. Most Democrats have predicted an easy confirmation for Gonzales.

Over the past several days, Kerik supporters have described him as a colorful man with the brio to lead a huge bureaucracy and give Americans confidence in the face of terrorism. Even with all the juicy details of his past, they say, there is no proof Kerik broke any laws.

Still, Bush's nomination of Kerik has raised new questions about a process that sometimes puts a president in a tough spot. It requires that he juggle his desire to fill a vacancy swiftly with making sure the person who would hold one of the government's highest jobs has a squeaky clean past.

The president was trying in the Kerik case to fill the vacancy left by Tom Ridge, who announced his resignation last month. Kerik had been mentioned as a possible successor for months, and former New York City Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani, a highly respected Republican who campaigned hard for Bush's re-election, was pressing Kerik's case with the president.

Kerik was, on the surface, an attractive choice for Bush. A popular former New York City beat officer, Kerik rose through the ranks to lead the force through its hardest days -- in the aftermath of the Sept. 11 attacks, which killed nearly two dozen New York police officers.

G. Calvin Mackenzie, a professor at Colby College in Maine who specializes in presidential appointments, said the White House likely saw less need to scrutinize Kerik's past because he had security clearances from the federal government.

And though the vetting process is intense, it is not foolproof, Mackenzie said. "You have to depend on the nominees to tell you where the potential troubles are," he said, adding that some people "desperately want these jobs" and will "lie to get them."

'So many red flags'

It is unlikely, he said, that White House officials would have let Bush go through with his announcement if they knew about the questions about Kerik's business relationships and arrest warrant. "The accumulation of problems would have doomed the nomination, so it is hard to imagine they could have known those things," Mackenzie said.

"I'm just mystified because there were so many red flags."

Chavez, Bush's first-term pick as labor secretary, saw her political hopes disappear when it was revealed in 2001 that she had not disclosed giving money and help to an illegal immigrant who did chores for her in the early 1990s. The revelation led critics to assail her as a hypocrite -- a woman with illegal help set to oversee the nation's labor laws.

In an interview, Chavez said it was easy to slip in the vetting process. "The question you are asked, and the one I failed to answer fully, which did me in, was, 'Is there anything in your past -- which, fairly or unfairly, can be used to embarrass you, a member of your family or the president?' " she said. "Who can answer that question if you're not Mother Teresa?"

Kerik maintains he only realized after Bush brought him to the White House last week and introduced him as his nominee that he may have brushed up against immigration laws.

Since then, Newsweek magazine has reported that a judge in New Jersey had issued a warrant to arrest Kerik for unpaid bills pertaining to a 1998 civil dispute. The New York Times reported Monday that Kerik had a social relationship with the owner of a construction company with possible ties to organized crime.

And Newsday reported yesterday that Kerik had a third marriage that he didn't disclose in his recent autobiography. The newspaper quoted a Kerik aide confirming the other marriage but saying Kerik had agreed with the woman "never to talk about it."

Sun staff writer Ellen Gamerman contributed to this article.

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