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Richard Cohen

The Commish of Homeland Insecurity

By Richard Cohen
Thursday, December 9, 2004; Page A33

On the night of Nov. 28, 2001, crack homicide detectives fanned out all over New York City, one of them even going as far as New Jersey. In all, five detectives from the Manhattan South Homicide Task Force went to the homes of various suspects, fingerprinted some of them, interrogated all of them and told a few that they would have to take lie detector tests. The horrific crime? The police commissioner's friend was missing some items.

The commish at the time was Bernard B. Kerik, who just the other day was nominated by George W. Bush to be the next head of the vast Department of Homeland Security. The crime victim was Judith Regan, a publisher at HarperCollins, whose imprint, Regan Books, was publishing Kerik's autobiography, "The Lost Son." It tells the Cagneyesque tale of a kid who, though his alcoholic mother died a prostitute, nevertheless managed to become a cop, a corrections official, a bodyguard for the mayor and, in due course, police commissioner of the city of New York. The Manhattan South homicide cops were working for Kerik.

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Regan's items apparently went AWOL from a studio at Fox News Channel, where she also worked. They included a cell phone, a necklace and a credit card. All the items were later accounted for. The necklace was found at the bottom of her handbag. The credit card had been left behind at a drugstore. As for the phone, it was later found in a trash basket -- and it is my guess that it was the real reason for such measured panic. You never know what numbers might be in a cell phone.

Right up front I should state that Kerik has always maintained that he had nothing to do with making homicide cops lost-and-found monitors. It's possible. Sometimes you don't have to order subordinates to do something. They just do it to please the boss. This was the case with Henry II of England. He uttered his famous lament about Thomas Becket, who was subsequently dispatched to sainthood by some overly zealous knights. We all know such things can happen.

For some reason, the Fox employees initially had a different take. They accused Kerik of abusing his authority and hired a lawyer, Robert M. Simels, who notified the city that he was about to sue. In the end he did not, because the employees dropped the matter. Nonetheless, in an interview with me, Simels had this to say about Kerik: "He abused his authority."

Maybe so. And if that's the case, we are beginning to see something of a pattern. Back in the 1980s, Kerik was working as chief of investigations for a hospital complex in Saudi Arabia, where he allegedly abused his authority to delve into the private lives of women with whom his boss was romantically involved. This saga, reported in The Post this week, is once again only an allegation (although from several people) -- and a dated one at that. But another has surfaced -- this one reported by Newsday. It says that Kerik "blocked the promotion of a qualified jail supervisor" because the man had reprimanded a female corrections officer Kerik had dated.

Is there anything here? I don't know. But I do know that as homeland security czar, Kerik will have plenty of police authority -- everything from border and transportation security to the Coast Guard and the Secret Service. This is a position with enormous power, and one where we really don't want a person who is tone-deaf to civil liberties and who is apt to send his guys out into the night on armed errands for his pals. What is needed, actually, is a top-notch administrator, a guy with a spreadsheet who can manage this huge and unwieldy department. President Bush, though, has chosen Kerik.

So be it. But the Senate should not go so gaga over Kerik's cinematic life story that it overlooks these troubling incidents. It could be that they all can be explained -- that in a long career of stepping on toes, Kerik has made some enemies, and the right type at that. But it could also be that Kerik cuts too many corners, that he has a certain understandable infatuation with his own image and a tendency to bully. Whatever the case, until these questions are answered, the proposed head of homeland security is making me, for one, feel anything but secure.


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