WASHINGTON — In a surprise move, former New York Police Commissioner Bernard Kerik abruptly withdrew his nomination as President Bush's choice to be homeland security secretary Friday night, saying questions have arisen about the immigration status of a housekeeper and nanny that he employed.
The decision caught the White House off guard and sent Bush in search of a new candidate to run the sprawling bureaucracy of more than 180,000 employees melded together from 22 disparate federal agencies in 2003 to guard the nation against terrorist attacks.
Kerik's nomination had been widely praised by Democrats and Republicans alike. A former military man, he became widely known for his role in helping direct the emergency response to the Sept. 11 terrorist strikes against the Twin Towers.
Kerik informed Bush of his decision to withdraw in a telephone call at 8:30 p.m.
"I am convinced that, for personal reasons, moving forward would not be in the best interests of your administration, the Department of Homeland Security or the American people," Kerik said in a letter to the president.
The White House said Bush accepted Kerik's decision.
Kerik is not the first prominent official to fall victim to the "nanny problem." Similar issues killed the nomination hopes of three candidates for top administration posts in the Clinton administration.
One administration official helping prepare Kerik for Senate confirmation, speaking on condition of anonymity, said Kerik's unexpected decision shocked senior leaders at the Homeland Security Department. The 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 incomplete.
But the only moderately troubling information uncovered about Kerik so far had been news that Kerik had earned $6.2 million by exercising stock options he received from Taser International, which did lucrative business with the Homeland Security Department, the official said.
The White House had defended Kerik against questions of conflict of interest involving his relationship with Taser.
"We have 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 there," White House press secretary Scott McClellan had said at his midday briefing.
In a statement separate from his resignation letter, Kerik said the problematic issue arose as 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."
Kerik said he feared 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."
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 the mustachioed law enforcement chief became known to the rest of the country, supervising the NYPD's response to the 2001 terror attacks, often at the side of then-Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani. 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.
Kerik's "nanny problem" recalls the controversies that faced several of former President Clinton's candidates to fill prominent positions.
Attorney Zoe Baird, who was Clinton's first choice to be attorney general, was forced to withdraw her nomination after the disclosure she had not paid Social Security taxes for a housekeeper -- an illegal immigrant -- as required by law.
Lani Guinier, a Clinton classmate at Yale University Law School, was the president's choice to head the Justice Department's civil rights division until it was learned that she had not paid taxes for a domestic worker.
Similarly, the nomination of federal judge Kimba Wood to be attorney general never went forward after the disclosure that she had hired an illegal immigrant as a baby-sitter. She had paid the required Social Security taxes and broke no laws. Wood was Clinton's second choice after the nanny issue had felled Baird.