White House officials yesterday blamed Bernard Kerik for repeatedly failing to disclose potential legal problems to administration lawyers vetting his nomination to be homeland-security...

Share story

WASHINGTON — White House officials yesterday blamed Bernard Kerik for repeatedly failing to disclose potential legal problems to administration lawyers vetting his nomination to be homeland-security secretary.

Meanwhile, President Bush prepared to quickly name a replacement and try to move beyond the controversy over the former New York police commissioner’s background.

Most Read Stories

Unlimited Digital Access. $1 for 4 weeks

Kerik, who withdrew his name 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, sources told The Washington Post.

Kerik responded with firm denials. After digging deeper, however, Kerik said he discovered last week he might have a problem on both accounts, and withdrew.

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

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

“It was Kerik’s screw-up, it was that simple,” a senior official told The New York Times. “But it’s a mistake you can’t tolerate with someone who has oversight for immigration.”

Kerik’s housekeeper situation was only the latest blemish to be revealed about the nominee. A series of critical news reports about questionable actions had begun to surface about Kerik, threatening to turn his Senate confirmation into a lengthy embarrassment for the administration.

The reports had looked at Kerik’s use of city personnel while in office, potential conflicts between his business life and the role of the Homeland Security Department, and events growing out of his personal financial difficulties several years ago.

In the vetting process, conducted by the office of White House counsel Alberto 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. Newsweek first reported the existence of the dispute Friday night. Still, it was 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.”

Bush plans to move quickly to name a replacement for Secretary Tom Ridge, who had announced plans to stay on the job until early February, unless a successor was confirmed earlier.

Among the possible choices to head Homeland Security, an enormous department with 180,000 employees, are several people whose names circulated prominently in the days before Kerik’s was announced.

They include Asa Hutchinson, a former Republican congressman from Arkansas and currently one of the department’s top officials, and Fran Townsend, the White House homeland-security adviser. Both have an important credential that Kerik lacked: They have been vetted for the positions they hold and are well-known inside the administration. Two sources said Bush is courting Sen. Joseph Lieberman, D-Conn., for an administration job, but it is not clear if homeland security could be the one.

Kerik’s abrupt withdrawal, announced in a terse White House release Friday night, focused unwanted attention on Bush’s second-term Cabinet shakeup.

In the weeks since his re-election, Bush has moved with unusual swiftness to change most of his first-term Cabinet members, replacing them with trusted loyalists in key departments such as State and Justice.

The shakeup has been carried out with careful attention to secrecy. Bush; White House Chief of Staff Andrew Card; political adviser Karl Rove; and Dina Powell, the head of presidential personnel, are usually the only ones outside the counsel’s office aware of the selections.

Once the selection 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 its background check. The FBI check is completed before the Senate confirms each pick.

Compiled from The Washington Post, The New York Times, Knight Ridder Newspapers and The Baltimore Sun.