Bernard Kerik, the tough-talking former New York City police commissioner named last week by President Bush to head the Homeland Security Department, abruptly asked last night that his name be withdrawn amid a growing number of questions concerning his past business dealings.
Questions also surfaced yesterday regarding the immigration status of a housekeeper and a nanny he employed.
“I remain firm in my belief that I could have made valuable contributions to the department and to its efforts. Under the present circumstances, however, I cannot permit matters personal to me to distract from the focus and progress of the Department of Homeland Security and its crucial endeavors,” Mr. Kerik said in a letter to the president.
“For these reasons, I must ask you to withdraw my nomination. I personally apologize to you for not having focused on this earlier,” he said, although the letter did not elaborate on what he meant by personal matters.
Mr. Kerik said in the letter that he was convinced that moving forward with the nomination “would not be in the best interests of your administration, the Department of Homeland Security or the American people.”
The announcement caught the Bush administration by surprise, but White House spokesman Scott McClellan said the president would “move as quickly as we can to name someone else to fill the position.” Several administration favorites, including former New York City Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani, were on the shortlist when Mr. Kerik was named.
“Commissioner Kerik informed the White House this evening that he is withdrawing his name for personal reasons from consideration for secretary of Homeland Security. The president respects his decision,” Mr. McClellan said.
In recent days, Democrats and a number of news organizations have raised questions about Mr. Kerik’s ties to Taser International, an Arizona-based manufacturer of stun guns. Mr. Kerik earned millions from the company by promoting the sale of Tasers to law-enforcement agencies.
Yesterday, outgoing Homeland Security chief Tom Ridge said Mr. Kerik went through a “rigorous process of filling out disclosure forms” after being tapped for the job, although department officials said Mr. Kerik had not yet completed ethics filings required by Congress that detail his sources of income and financial liabilities and that his FBI background investigation remained incomplete.
“Bernie and I have talked,” Mr. Ridge told reporters. “And I firmly believe that if there is a conflict of interest standing between my successor and his ability to serve his country, then he’ll do his best to resolve it. So I’m going to let the ethics folks make that decision.”
Earlier in the day, Mr. McClellan said the White House had “looked into all these issues,” and had “full confidence in his integrity, and we are confident that he will take the appropriate steps necessary to make sure that there are no conflicts.”
Mr. Kerik’s so-called “nanny problem” led to the withdrawal of three Cabinet nominations during the Clinton administration, including Zoe Baird, an attorney who was President Clinton’s first choice as attorney general; Lani Guinier, a Clinton classmate at Yale University Law School who had been tapped to head the Justice Department’s civil rights division; and Kimba Wood, a U.S. District Court judge who was Mr. Clinton’s second choice for attorney general.
Questions concerning Mr. Kerik’s involvement with the Arizona firm were reported earlier this week, when it was learned that he had earned $6.2 million by exercising stock options he received from Taser International, which did lucrative business with the Homeland Security Department.
Mr. Kerik said in a separate statement attached to his letter that the Taser issue surfaced when he was completing documents required for Senate confirmation.
“I uncovered information that now leads me to question the immigration status of a person who had been in my employ as a housekeeper and nanny. It has also been brought to my attention that for a period of time during such employment required tax payments and related filings had not been made,” he said.
Mr. Kerik said at the time that disclosure of the issue would generate intense scrutiny that would “only serve as a significant and unnecessary distraction to the vital efforts of the Department of Homeland Security.”
Bill Sammon contributed to this report.