White House Looked Past Alarms on Kerik

By John Solomon and Peter Baker
Washington Post Staff Writers
Sunday, April 8, 2007

When former New York mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani urged President Bush to make Bernard B. Kerik the next secretary of homeland security, White House aides knew Kerik as the take-charge top cop from Sept. 11, 2001. But it did not take them long to compile an extensive dossier of damaging information about the would-be Cabinet officer.

They learned about questionable financial deals, an ethics violation, allegations of mismanagement and a top deputy prosecuted for corruption. Most disturbing, according to people close to the process, was Kerik's friendship with a businessman who was linked to organized crime. The businessman had told federal authorities that Kerik received gifts, including $165,000 in apartment renovations, from a New Jersey family with alleged Mafia ties.

Alarmed about the raft of allegations, several White House aides tried to raise red flags. But the normal investigation process was short-circuited, the sources said. Bush's top lawyer, Alberto R. Gonzales, took charge of the vetting, repeatedly grilling Kerik about the issues that had been raised. In the end, despite the concerns, the White House moved forward with his nomination -- only to have it collapse a week later.

The selection of Kerik in December 2004 for one of the most sensitive posts in government became an acute but brief embarrassment for Bush at the start of his second term. More than two years later, it has reemerged as part of a federal criminal investigation of Kerik that raises questions about the decisions made by the president, the Republican front-runner to replace him and the embattled attorney general.

A reconstruction of the failed nomination, assembled through interviews with key players, provides new details and a fuller account of the episode -- how Giuliani put forward a flawed candidate for high office, how Bush rushed the usual process in his eagerness to install a political ally and how Gonzales, as White House counsel, failed to stop the nomination despite the many warning signs. "The vetting process clearly broke down," said a senior White House official. "This should not happen."

Federal prosecutors have told Kerik that they are likely to charge him with several felonies, including providing false information to the government when Bush nominated him, sources have told The Washington Post. Kerik recently turned down a proposed agreement in which he would plead guilty and serve time in prison because, his attorney said, he would not "plead to something that he didn't do."

The investigation has put Giuliani's relationship with Kerik back in the spotlight at a time when the former mayor leads the Republican presidential field in national polls. During an appearance in Florida last weekend, Giuliani told reporters that they had a right to question his judgment in putting Kerik in charge of the New York Police Department and recommending him to Bush. "I should have done a better job of investigating him, vetting him," Giuliani said. "It's my responsibility, and I've learned from it."

The White House explanation has shifted significantly. Just after Kerik withdrew, White House spokesman Scott McClellan said that "we have no reason to believe" he lied and that it "would be an inaccurate impression" to say the vetting was rushed. Now current and former White House officials assert that Kerik lied "bald-faced," as one put it, and say they erred by speeding up the nomination.

Aides said they now believe they were lulled by Kerik's swaggering Sept. 11 reputation, and were too passive in accommodating the president's desire for secrecy and speed and too willing to trust Giuliani's judgment.

From 9/11 Hero to Nominee

Bush met Kerik in the debris of the World Trade Center and was so impressed that he later sent him to Iraq to train police. The bald, mustachioed street cop appealed to Bush, who admired his can-do persona. By 2004, Kerik was sent to the Democratic National Convention as part of an opposition war room, given a prime speaking slot at the Republican National Convention and tapped to appear with the president on the campaign trail.

Kerik did not fit the button-down model of the Bush administration. A high school dropout and son of a prostitute apparently killed by her pimp, Kerik became an undercover narcotics detective with ponytail and diamond earrings. He joined Giuliani's 1993 campaign as his driver and was later given top appointments, including corrections commissioner and eventually police commissioner. After office, Giuliani and Kerik became partners in a security consulting firm.

So when Giuliani telephoned Bush to recommend that he make Kerik his second-term homeland security secretary, the president jumped at the idea. The sheen of a 9/11 hero seemed to be just what was needed to take on a troubled new department struggling to integrate 22 agencies and 180,000 employees to protect the nation's ports, borders and airports; enforce immigration and customs laws; and respond to major disasters. Only a few aides, including then-Chief of Staff Andrew H. Card Jr. and senior adviser Karl Rove, were clued in to the president's decision.

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