White House officials yesterday blamed Bernard B. Kerik for repeatedly failing to disclose potential legal problems to administration lawyers vetting his nomination to be homeland security secretary, as President Bush prepared to quickly name a replacement and try to put the controversy over the former New York police commissioner's background behind him.
Kerik, who withdrew his own nomination 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, the sources said.
Kerik was told he would humiliate his family, himself and the president if he lied on either account, the officials said. He responded with firm denials. After digging deeper, however, Kerik said he discovered last week that he might have a problem on both accounts and withdrew his name.
In the vetting process, which was conducted by the office of White House counsel Alberto R. 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. The existence of the dispute was first reported by Newsweek Friday night.
It is unclear why White House lawyers could not uncover a warrant that Newsweek discovered after a few days of research, although some are blaming Bush's insistence on speed and secrecy for failing to catch this and other potential red flags in Kerik's background.
White House officials said they believe Kerik could have survived a controversy over the warrant in a civil matter, despite having served as New York City police commissioner and being nominated to lead an agency with major law enforcement responsibilities.
Joseph Tacopina, Kerik's lawyer, said his client was not aware of the warrant, which stemmed from a dispute over about $5,000 in condominium fees. In an interview, Tacopina said there are no outstanding warrants for Kerik but he could not "confirm or deny" there once was one. A copy of the warrant was provided to The Washington Post by Newsweek.
Still, it is 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, although the few White House officials with knowledge of the shortlist would not speculate or respond to calls.
Other Republicans inside and out the White House said potential replacements include White House homeland security adviser Frances Fragos Townsend; White House deputy chief of staff for operations Joseph Hagin; Asa Hutchinson, undersecretary for transportation and border security at Homeland Security; and Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Mike Leavitt. An announcement is expected before Christmas.
Two sources said Bush is courting Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman (D-Conn.) for an administration job, but it is not clear whether homeland security could be the one.
Bush did not say anything about the matter yesterday, but he teased reporters by cupping his hand to his ear as he walked across the White House's South Lawn to his helicopter, as if to invite a question. Asked whether he was upset about Kerik, the president smiled and cupped his hand to his ear again, even though he appeared to have heard the question.
A full FBI field check of a nominee is sometimes completed in advance of Cabinet picks. Often, as in Kerik's case, it is not. A former administration official familiar with the appointment process said that Bush's system has produced remarkably few problems but that "perceived or actual political pressure to get appointments done quickly" often makes it impossible to do as much vetting as White House lawyers would like.
"A candidate can be so eager for appointment that he shades the truth. A candidate cannot perceive that he has a problem, when he does. A candidate can simply forget or overlook something," the official said.