WASHINGTON – Bernard Kerik (search), New York City's former top cop, withdrew his name from consideration to be President Bush's homeland security secretary, a victim of the embarrassing "nanny problem" that has killed the nominations of other prominent officials.
The surprise move late Friday sends Bush back in search of a Cabinet official to help guard the nation against another terrorist attack.
While assembling paperwork for his Senate confirmation, Kerik said he uncovered questions about the immigration status of a housekeeper-nanny that he employed. As homeland security secretary, Kerik would oversee the Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency.
"I am convinced that, for personal reasons, moving forward would not be in the best interests of your administration, the Department of Homeland Security (search) or the American people," Kerik said in a letter to Bush.
He said he could not allow personal matters "distract from the focus and progress of the Department of Homeland Security and its crucial endeavors."
Kerik — the bald, mustachioed former New York City police commissioner — was among a small cadre of leaders who became the face of the response to the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, often directing Manhattan's response alongside of then-Mayor Rudolph Giuliani (search).
When Bush announced Kerik's nomination last week, he won early support in Republican and some Democratic quarters.
But others questioned whether Kerik had the management experience to continue the nearly 2-year-long effort to meld the Homeland Security Department's sprawling bureaucracy, made up of more than 180,000 employees from 22 federal agencies.
Democrats also were focusing on Kerik's recent windfall, which he made by exercising stock options in a stun gun company that does business with the Department of Homeland Security.
Kerik's announcement marked an unusual disruption in the White House's normally well-choreographed personnel moves. But he is not the first prominent government official to fall victim to the "nanny problem."
Similar issues killed the nominations of three candidates for top administration posts in the Clinton administration. That includes his first choice to be attorney general, Zoe Baird, who was forced to withdraw her name from consideration after the disclosure she had not paid Social Security taxes for a housekeeper, an illegal immigrant.
When Bush set up his first Cabinet in 2001, conservative commentator Linda Chavez also stepped aside as the nominee for labor secretary after it was disclosed that she had given money and shelter to an illegal immigrant who once did chores around her house.
In a telephone interview Friday night, former mayor Giuliani said he had discussed the immigration issue with Kerik in the last two days and agreed with his decision.
"I'm disappointed that this had to happen, but I think it's the right decision, the only decision given the kind of issue that's involved here," Giuliani said. "I don't think this would be as major an issue if it were a different department of government."
Kerik's personal lawyer, Joseph Tacopina, said it was Kerik's call to withdraw. "It was Bernie Kerik who uncovered this on his own. He brought it to the White House," said Tacopina, who described Kerik as "distraught."
While Kerik confided in a close circle of associates, the announcement came as a surprise to many government insiders.
One administration official helping prepare Kerik for Senate confirmation, speaking on condition of anonymity, said his decision shocked senior Homeland Security leaders.
This official said Kerik still had not filled out all his ethics filings — which would detail his sources of income and financial liabilities — and said the FBI background investigation of Kerik was still incomplete.
But the only moderately troubling information uncovered about Kerik so far had been news that he had earned $6.2 million by exercising stock options he received from Taser International, which had a lucrative relationship with the Homeland Security Department, this official said.
As recently as midday Friday, the White House had defended Kerik against questions of conflict of interest involving his relationship with Taser. Now, Bush is turning his attention to finding a replacement.
Among those mentioned as possible candidates before Kerik was chosen were Joe Allbaugh, a former director of the Federal Emergency Management Agency; Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Mike Leavitt and White House homeland security adviser Fran Townsend.
Others believed to be interested in the job include Asa Hutchinson, Homeland Security undersecretary for border and transportation security.
Kerik's first anti-terrorism work was as a paid private security worker in Saudi Arabia. He joined the New York Police Department in 1986, first walking a beat in Times Square. He eventually was tapped to lead the city's Corrections Department and was appointed commissioner in 2000.
It was in that position that he became known to the rest of the country, supervising the NYPD's response to the 2001 terror attacks. In 2003, he took on a temporary assignment in Iraq to help rebuild the country's police force. Most recently, he has been a consultant for Giuliani Partners, working to rebuild Baghdad's police force.