In the wake of the Bernard Kerik fiasco, nearly everyone who endorsed the former New York police commissioner looks naive at best and irresponsible at worst. The president's attempt to place this disreputable figure in charge of the Department of Homeland Security reads like a bad sitcom plot.
Such blunders are inevitable when the chief executive prefers political fidelity and tough posturing to competence and judgment. It's hardly surprising that George W. Bush would be attracted to a figure like Kerik, who apparently compensates for his meager credentials with extra swaggering.
The White House counsel's office, under the direction of Alberto Gonzales, our next likely attorney general, has yet to justify its failure to uncover Kerik's checkered history. The president's advisers have faulted Kerik himself, as if the government could simply depend on nominees for self-vetting. Their strange passivity reflects the same Bush administration attitude that trusts major corporations to report their own environmental pollution and consumer swindling.
Any exercise in shifting blame inevitably pointed to Kerik's most important endorser: his mentor, confidant, employer, and business partner, Rudolph W. Giuliani. Whether the former New York City mayor actually accepts any responsibility for the Kerik error wasn't clear from his public statements, but he apologized to President Bush at a White House dinner.
Unfortunately for Giuliani, no apology will satisfy the appetite of the press for tawdry Kerik tales. Very rarely does a story exposing abuse of police authority include such beguiling details as a jewel-encrusted badge, a mobbed-up crony, a multimillion-dollar stock trade, and a flashy mistress or two. The more we hear about the bodyguard and driver whom Giuliani promoted to police commissioner, the more we also learn about the man who likes to be called America's mayor.
The scrutinizing of Kerik reopened questions about the Giuliani administration that seemed to have been closed forever on September 11, 2001. A government that prides itself on ostentatious religiosity and moralizing is probably most embarrassed by the sexual peccadilloes of its backers. But what could embarrass Giuliani most is his wayward protégé's coddling of a city contractor with alleged Mafia connections.
That firm, known as Interstate Industrial Corporation, hired Kerik's close friend Lawrence Ray to overcome obstacles to doing business with the city. Interstate's main problem was that city officials suspected the New Jersey company and its principal, Frank DiTommaso, of long and intimate ties with organized crime. According to reports in the Daily News and The New York Times, Ray gave Kerik "more than $7,000 in cash and other gifts while Kerik was commissioner of correction and the police."
In 1999, when he was running the city's prisons, Kerik reportedly spoke up for Interstate in a chat with Raymond V. Casey, the chief of enforcement for the city's Trade Waste Commission. Although Kerik says he doesn't recall the conversation, Casey told reporters that Kerik had vouched for the integrity of Ray, the Interstate lobbyist, which he considered a "weird" sort of endorsement by the then-corrections commissioner. Ray was indicted in 2000 for his role in a mob-connected financial fraud. And it later turned out that Kerik was also quite friendly with DiTommaso, who vehemently denies doing business with the Gambino and DeCavalcante crime families, as government agencies have alleged.
Turning the multibillion-dollar Homeland Security budget over to a hack who took money and favors in that seedy milieu doesn't seem prudent, but it almost happened.
So the mayor who sponsored Kerik's rise has some explaining to do. What did Giuliani know about his corrections commissioner's "weird" relationships and behavior when he promoted him to police commissioner? He might well have learned about the Interstate matter from Casey, a regulator he appointed who also happens to be his cousin.
Two months before Kerik was named Giuliani's police commissioner, the city Department of Investigation opened an inquiry into Kerik's relationship with DiTommaso. Giuliani says he was not aware of the probe.
Now Giuliani has welcomed Kerik back into the fold at Giuliani Partners, where the disappointed office-seeker will presumably remain discreet about their shared secrets.
Much like the president, Giuliani as mayor increasingly surrounded himself with a tight circle of lackeys and cronies. His post-disaster performance obscured those negative qualities for a while, and rightly so. But now we're reminded how the former prosecutor discarded important values of independence and integrity when they conflicted with his political needs.
He'll make a terrific presidential candidate. •
Joe Conason writes a weekly column on politics for The New York Observer.