Former New York City police commissioner Bernard Kerik withdrew as President Bush's nominee for secretary of the Department of Homeland Security last night, saying he had not paid...

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WASHINGTON — Former New York City police commissioner Bernard Kerik withdrew as President Bush’s nominee for secretary of the Department of Homeland Security last night, saying he had not paid taxes for a recent nanny and housekeeper who may have been an illegal immigrant.

The decision caught the White House off guard and sent Bush in search of a new candidate to run the bureaucracy of more than 180,000 employees melded together from 22 disparate federal agencies in 2003 to guard the nation against terrorist attacks.

The White House announcement said only Kerik “is withdrawing his name for personal reasons.” But in a written statement provided by a friend, Kerik said that in filling out forms required for Senate confirmation, he “uncovered information that now leads me to question the immigration status of a person who had been in my employ as a housekeeper and nanny.”

“It has also been brought to my attention that for a period of time during such employment, required tax payments and related filings had not been made,” he wrote.

Even before the nanny issue arose, Democrats had targeted Kerik as the most vulnerable of Bush’s second-term nominations. White House officials realized he was becoming a lightning rod, though they had thought he would survive.

Democrats had focused on the quick riches Kerik had accumulated since resigning as police commissioner, a post he held during the 2001 attack on the World Trade Center.

Since leaving his city office, Kerik had earned $6.2 million by exercising stock options he received as a director for Taser International, a stun-gun company that did business with the Department of Homeland Security.

“Nanny problems” have sunk several high-profile nominations in recent years. In 2001, Linda Chavez withdrew as Bush’s first nominee for labor secretary after it was learned she had housed an illegal immigrant.

The departures of Chavez, and now Kerik, recalled the nomination of Zoe Baird to be President Bill Clinton’s attorney general.

Baird withdrew after it became known she had employed an illegal immigrant couple and failed to pay Social Security taxes.

Kerik said he had “initiated efforts to fulfill any outstanding reporting requirements and tax obligations related to this issue” but said he realized that disclosure would generate “intense scrutiny” that would distract from the mission of the Department of Homeland Security. Among the tasks is enforcement of the nation’s immigration laws.

Former New York Mayor Rudolph Giuliani, who had made Kerik corrections commissioner and later police commissioner, had recommended him strongly to Bush. Giuliani said in a phone interview Kerik had employed the woman recently to take care of his two young children.

“Bernie told me that they really loved her and the kids loved her, but she had to go back to her country,” Giuliani said. He said she returned voluntarily but would not identify the country.

He did not have the date but said it was “pretty recently,” although he believed it was before the nomination.

“When he actually sat down and did the form, he realized there was a real problem here,” Giuliani said. “He hadn’t focused on it. There are personal reasons for it.”

Republican officials said the White House counsel’s office had asked Kerik about the matter repeatedly in investigating his background before the nomination was announced. Because of the past incidents, nanny issues are among the first that administration officials explore, and among the ones they probe most aggressively.

White House press secretary Scott McClellan said that at about 8:30 p.m. EST, Kerik had a brief phone conversation with Bush, who was at the White House for a holiday party.

McClellan said it was Kerik’s decision to withdraw, and that the president “will move as quickly as we can to name a new nominee.”

Among those on the initial short list were Rep. Christopher Cox, R-Calif., chairman of the House Select Committee on Homeland Security; Asa Hutchinson, undersecretary of homeland security for border and transportation security, who has since been mentioned as a candidate for Arkansas governor; Frances Townsend, White House homeland-security adviser, and Joe Allbaugh, former administrator of the Federal Emergency Management Agency.

Two other nominees in the Clinton administration faced nanny problems.

Lani Guinier, Clinton’s choice to head the Justice Department’s civil-rights division, had not paid taxes for a domestic worker, though Clinton cited her legal writings on racial issues for dropping the nomination.

And Clinton’s nomination of Kimba Wood to be attorney general never went forward after the disclosure that she had hired an illegal immigrant as a baby-sitter. She had paid the required taxes and broke no laws.

Washington Post staff writers Brooke A. Masters and John Mintz contributed to this report. Material from The Associated Press and Los Angeles Times also is included.