Wednesday, December 15, 2004

Missteps Cited in Kerik Vetting by White House

The New York Times
December 15, 2004

Missteps Cited in Kerik Vetting by White House

This article was reported by Elisabeth Bumiller, Eric Lipton and David Johnston and written by Ms. Bumiller.

WASHINGTON, Dec. 14 - Despite hours of confrontational interviews by the White House counsel, Alberto R. Gonzales, the Bush administration failed to get a full picture of the legal and ethical problems of Bernard B. Kerik, its nominee for homeland security secretary, a government official said on Tuesday.

In addition, the White House did not consult with the one person in the West Wing who knew the most about Mr. Kerik's background, Frances Townsend, because Ms. Townsend, President Bush's adviser on homeland security and a former federal prosecutor in New York, was under consideration for the position herself, said the official, who would speak only on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the issue.

Those problems, law enforcement officials and Republicans said, were just two of the factors that led to the collapse of the Kerik nomination and surprised a White House focused on changing more than half the cabinet.

The story of Mr. Kerik's nomination is one of how a normally careful White House faltered because of Mr. Bush's personal enthusiasm for Mr. Kerik, a desire by the administration to quickly fill a critical national security job and an apparent lack of candor from Mr. Kerik himself.

A Republican close to the White House who has participated in background reviews of presidential nominees said the fault lay both with Mr. Kerik and with "whoever's job it was to check him out."

A major problem, law enforcement officials said, was that the White House did not have the benefit of any F.B.I. investigation into Mr. Kerik's past. Mr. Kerik, as New York City's police commissioner on Sept. 11, 2001, had been offered a high security clearance by federal officials so he could receive classified intelligence about the city's security, a law enforcement official said. But he failed to return a questionnaire needed for the F.B.I. to conduct a background check, and he never received that clearance, the law enforcement official said.

Mr. Kerik said on Tuesday night through his spokesman, Christopher Rising, that he could not remember receiving the questionnaire. Mr. Kerik still received classified information from the F.B.I. and the C.I.A. regarding security issues in New York, the law enforcement official said, although the police commissioner was not given the most sensitive intelligence about the sources of the data. He served as police commissioner through the end of 2001.

Mr. Kerik also failed to complete a required federal financial disclosure form in May 2003, when he left the country to spend three and a half months in Iraq trying to train Iraqi police officers, a law enforcement official said. The disclosure form, law enforcement officials said, might have turned up some of the financial problems that surfaced this month in connection with a condominium he owned in New Jersey.

In addition, law enforcement officials said, Mr. Bush announced Mr. Kerik's nomination before the F.B.I. had begun the full field investigation required of all cabinet nominees. The officials said such an investigation would have readily uncovered the problems that doomed Mr. Kerik's nomination. The investigation was not done, administration officials said, because the Bush White House has generally not conducted such checks, which take numerous agents many weeks to complete, until after the president announces a nominee. A former White House official who has conducted background checks said that the Bush White House got into the habit during the abbreviated transition in 2000, when there was little time for investigating nominees.

The Clinton administration also waited on F.B.I. background checks, which caused a number of embarrassments. But the administrations of Ronald Reagan and the President Bush's father, for the most part, waited until an F.B.I. investigation was complete before the president announced a cabinet nominee.

White House officials said the counsel's office had conducted a less-comprehensive investigation of Mr. Kerik over several weeks in November, before the president announced his nomination, and that the White House was well aware that he had problems in his past, including a warrant for his arrest in connection with delinquent condominium fees.

Mr. Kerik was nominated by Mr. Bush on Dec. 3 but withdrew a week later, citing problems with a nanny who may have been in the country illegally and whose taxes he had not paid. Since then, Mr. Kerik has had to answer questions about his connections to a New Jersey company suspected of having ties to organized crime and his use of an apartment, donated as a resting spot for police officers at ground zero, where he conducted an affair with his book publisher, according to someone who discussed the relationship with him..

It is unclear exactly what the White House knew of Mr. Kerik's past. But aides there concluded that Mr. Kerik would be regarded as a "colorful" figure whose strong performance after the Sept. 11 attacks would propel him into office, one official said.

Mr. Gonzales, who is himself in the middle of a background review as Mr. Bush's nominee for attorney general, spent hours grilling Mr. Kerik, the official said. As with other nominees, the sessions were aggressive and designed to make Mr. Kerik uncomfortable enough to reveal possible embarrassing events in his record. Even so, he apparently withheld some pertinent facts. Mr. Gonzales declined to comment.

Throughout the process, the Republican close to the administration said, everyone at the White House knew that Mr. Bush liked Mr. Kerik, placing him in the special category of "this guy's our guy." Mr. Bush admired Mr. Kerik for his service as New York City's police commissioner on Sept. 11, 2001, for his willingness to try to train the police force in Iraq and for campaigning tirelessly for the president's re-election.

As for problems in his past that might have derailed his nomination, Republicans noted that former Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani was enthusiastically vouching for Mr. Kerik. And no one could imagine that the life of a former New York police chief was not already an open book.

Mr. Bush, who first met Mr. Kerik when the president went to the still-smoking ruins of the World Trade Center on Sept. 14, 2001, lavished praise on Mr. Kerik when the two stood side by side on the White House South Lawn in October 2003. The president had just met in the Oval Office with Mr. Kerik upon his return from Iraq.

Others criticized Mr. Kerik for seeming to focus more on seeking publicity than on expanding training programs for new Iraqi police officers. "He was terrific about inspiring people and creating a goal, but he was often not very good about following up and getting it done," one former American official who spent time in Baghdad said this month.

But Mr. Bush did not forget Mr. Kerik's time under fire, or his reflected glow from New York's response to the attacks on the city. By the fall of 2004, Mr. Kerik had become one of the symbols of the Bush campaign's fight against terrorism and traveled the nation spreading the message.

Christopher Drew contributed reporting from New York for this article.