He had no idea what was about to hit him.
On Friday, the day after Thanksgiving, Bernie Kerik was at home in Franklin Lakes, New Jersey, with his family. He was answering e-mail and cleaning up some paperwork when the White House called at around 4:30. Dina Powell, the president’s headhunter, was on the line.
“I’m about to go into a meeting with the president and Andy Card,” said Powell, who, at 31, was running the White House personnel office and was responsible for filling Cabinet slots, ambassadorships, and several hundred other jobs. “I need an answer. Do you want to go forward with the process?”
Kerik, of course, was under consideration for the top job at the Department of Homeland Security, and the process had quietly been in motion for a couple of weeks. He’d sent in a bio and then a detailed résumé, and was specifically instructed not to tell anyone except his wife. Not even Rudy Giuliani.
The vetting had begun, and White House staffers were calling regularly with questions about his background: jobs he’d had, places he’d lived, problems he’d encountered. The Wednesday before Thanksgiving, Kerik was having lunch at Uncle Jack’s Steakhouse on Ninth Avenue when then–White House counsel Alberto Gonzales called at around two o’clock. Kerik sat in the back of the restaurant and talked to him on his cell phone for an hour and a half.
Initially, it was all thrilling. A member of the president’s Cabinet. It was an unbelievable story. Kerik, the high-school dropout who had to go back and get a GED. Kerik, whose mother was an alcoholic prostitute murdered by her pimp. As one cop from Kerik’s old detail when he was police commissioner put it, “I look at where he came from, and I think, These were the guys I was usually locking up, not working for.”
Even his credentials as a New York City cop were pretty thin for someone who’d risen to the top job. Though he was heavily decorated, he was on the force only eight years, and his highest rank before being named commissioner was detective third grade. Now he was about to get one of the top jobs in the Bush administration. In truth, Kerik himself, whose robust ego knows few limits, was having trouble wrapping his mind around the concept.
But by the time Powell called on that Friday, some harsh realities were already beginning to intrude. In anticipation of the offer from the White House, Kerik had sold his stock in Taser, a company that manufactures stun guns and does business with the government. Kerik was on the board of directors, and his stock sale netted him nearly $6 million.
He thought the sale would eliminate Taser as an issue. However, he still had another 100,000 shares, which he was restricted from selling for at least six months. The same day he talked to Gonzales, a White House ethics person called him in the evening and told him he was going to have to forfeit that stock. At the time, the stock was around $50.
Kerik began to do the math. He’d lose at least several million on the Taser stock, and he’d have to give up his salary (said to be more than $500,000 a year) and bonus at Giuliani Partners. This was a big hit to take, especially for a guy who’d never made any money. “It’s strange,” Kerik says, “because on the one hand, the honor of being chosen was so great. But on the other hand, I felt like this is what I worked my whole life for and I’m finally here and now somebody wants me to take 50 percent of my net worth and give it back. I don’t want to do that. I can’t do that.”
There were other concerns as well. He’d have to move his family to Washington. And Kerik’s wife was worried that she and the kids would never see him. She knew from his days as police commissioner the kind of commitment these jobs required. “I didn’t see my daughter Celine walk,” he says of his 5-year-old, “until a week after she’d taken her first steps.”
And so when Powell asked Kerik if she could tell the president he wanted to go forward, it was not a simple question. “I looked at my wife, who was standing there next to me while I was on the phone, and I told Dina no. I told her I didn’t want to go ahead,” he says, pausing for a few moments to try to maintain his composure. Kerik actually turned the job down. “It was probably the hardest decision I’ve ever had to make. I hung up the phone, got into bed, pulled the covers over me, and cried.”
It could have ended there. Kerik could have walked away, reputation and private-sector job intact, with the satisfaction of knowing he was the president’s first choice to be secretary of Homeland Security. He would have been spared the humiliating public bludgeoning that, unbeknownst to him at the time, would begin in a few weeks.
On Saturday, Kerik kept thinking about his decision. “But by that evening, I’d resigned myself to the fact that it wasn’t happening. I really figured it was over.” On Sunday, however, Gonzales called to ask a few additional questions. Then on Monday, Powell, a friend from before the process began, called again. She tried to explain that he wouldn’t necessarily have to forfeit the stock. It was possible he could put it in a trust and, much like an IRA, retrieve it at some point in the future. “But it wasn’t really clear if this would work or not,” Kerik says. “And no matter how they explained it, it still sounded like I’d be losing it.”
Later that day, Powell called once more. This time she tried flattery. “I think you’d be really good at this job, and so do a lot of other people around here.” She made it clear that the president wanted him to do this.
“We need to know,” Powell said, “if we should set up a meeting with you and the president.” Kerik was silent for a few moments. He took a deep breath, then exhaled heavily and said, “Okay, let’s do it.” Even now, after everything that’s happened, he says, with a measure of equanimity, “How do you say no to the president?”
The next day, Kerik received his instructions. He was told to drive down to Washington. Flying or taking the train was out because the press would be watching. “A big part of the difficulty,” Kerik says, “is that so much of it is done the way it is to prevent a leak. They’re trying to do everything as quickly as possible. To be honest, I was never really clear on what would happen to my stock and what the financial picture was, because things were moving so fast.”
When he got to Washington, Kerik was supposed to check into a hotel and hang loose until he got a call. The drive, in a heavy rainstorm, was awful. It took eight hours. When the call came for him at the Marriott, Kerik put on a baseball cap and sunglasses and drove to the White House in his BMW 745.
“They had people watching for me, and they snuck me in through a rear gate,” he says. He was whisked directly to the elevator and upstairs so no one would see him. Bush, who had just returned from Canada, came out to greet him almost immediately.
In the Oval Office, the president sat in a chair and Kerik was on the couch. “He was sort of informal, but very direct,” Kerik remembers. “He said, ‘I’m looking for someone to take over Homeland Security. That’s why you’re here. Are you interested?’”
When Kerik responded that he was, the president’s demeanor seemed to shift. “Suddenly he sat up straighter, he smoothed his tie and the front of his suit jacket with his hand, and he got kind of official, presidential. Then he said, ‘As the president, I’m offering you the job of secretary of Homeland Security.’ Whew,” Kerik says, curling up one side of his mouth and slowly turning his head from side to side, displaying a mixture of shock and awe. “It was like a head rush. One of those moments where time sort of stopped.”
Once Kerik accepted, Bush took a few minutes to explain why he’d chosen him. He told Kerik he believed that few people had a better understanding of terrorist threats to America, based on his ground-level, front-line experience with the NYPD on September 11, and in Iraq. He also said he believed Kerik could effectively communicate the seriousness of those threats to the American people.
But then he got to the heart of the matter. “He used an expression I’d never heard before,” Kerik says. “He told me he wanted someone to go in there and ‘break some china.’”
When he walked out of the Oval Office, Kerik was, in a word, stunned. He went in not knowing what to expect. Would it be like an actual job interview? Would there be specific policy questions? (What do you think of immigration on the Southwest border? How about the color-coded warning system?) Would he be asked about his law-enforcement philosophy?
“There were no policy questions,” Kerik says. “His mind was obviously made up before I walked in.”
Before leaving the White House, Kerik met with Bush chief of staff Andy Card in his office. “He talked to me a little about what would happen once the president announced I was the nominee. He said it’s going to be a difficult, grueling process.”
Given how things turned out, Card’s cautionary comment is almost laughable in its understatement. Ten days later, Kerik was forced to withdraw his name from consideration because of a nanny problem. His withdrawal, however, was only the start of his ordeal. Kerik’s decision ignited several weeks of a relentless public pounding.
It was that uniquely American spectacle known as a media pile-on. Once the blows starting raining down on him, he was like an overmatched fighter trapped in the corner of the ring. There was little he could do other than cover up and wait for it to be over.
“I thought I was prepared, but I had no idea,” Kerik says. “You can’t anticipate what’s going to happen. Let me put it this way. If they started vetting you tomorrow, you’d say, ‘There are things I need to tell you about. There’s this thing and that person.’ But once the process actually begins,” he says, waving his hand dismissively, “all that’s nothing. It’s like I stole a piece of bubble gum when I was fucking 8 and somebody saw it. It’s that kind of thing.”
Few public figures have fallen as hard as fast. Though there have certainly been other public figures forced off the stage in disgrace, Kerik’s case has an extraordinary aspect to it. Suddenly, literally overnight, the very qualities for which Bush picked him were now put forward as his most glaring liabilities.
The onetime top cop with the colorful background and the outsize ego, the tough, street-smart guy’s guy who leapfrogged his way to success and who sometimes bent the rules to get things done—the guy who would “break some china”—was portrayed as an out-of-control renegade with insatiable appetites, questionable judgment, and little respect for the rules most people live by.
Kerik withdrew on a Friday night, exactly one week after he was announced as the nominee. By Monday, the charges began to fly, and they seemed to get uglier and more serious by the moment. Kerik had ties to organized crime. He accepted thousands of dollars in unreported gifts. He had not one but two mistresses, and one of them was tempestuous publishing titan Judith Regan. He used a ground-zero apartment, designated for rescue workers, as a love nest. He’d gone bankrupt. He ran the jails and then the NYPD like his own little fiefdoms, rewarding his friends and punishing his enemies. A warrant had been issued for his arrest in New Jersey. And on it went.
Things were spinning so wildly out of control by week’s end that even two seemingly outlandish rumors began to take on some ballast; so much so that Kerik asked me, at our first meeting, if I’d heard them. The first was that he’d never even employed a nanny. The nanny was a story he, and perhaps the White House, concocted to provide him with an excuse to withdraw his name from consideration before all the more embarrassing charges came out. Laughing at the absurdity of this claim, Kerik showed me a picture of the nanny at his daughter Angelina’s birthday party.
The other story is an even more acutely cynical tale. It credits Karl Rove, the supposed “evil genius,” with a master plan that included the Kerik debacle. He wanted Bush to nominate Kerik, who he knew would then get eviscerated, thereby embarrassing, and ultimately damaging, Rudy Giuliani and hurting his chances for getting the Republican Party’s nomination in 2008.
“There were reporters who wrote things they knew weren’t true,” Kerik says, shaking his head in amazement. “That’s unfair. But human nature is what it is, and when the fucking snowball starts rolling down the hill, look out, because whatever’s in the way is gonna get flattened.”
There are moments when Kerik second-guesses his decision to withdraw. He believed at the time that the immigration issue with his nanny—she was, he says, using someone else’s Social Security number—was insurmountable. “I dropped out for what I thought was the right reason,” he says. “I didn’t want it to be a huge distraction for the president. But, shit,” he says disgustedly, “I would not have dropped out over this other stuff, all of which is either untrue, exaggerated, taken out of context, or has an explanation.”
On a cold but sunny morning recently, I drove out to Franklin Lakes to see Kerik. Though the house, which got some airtime when the traveling media circus set up camp out front, is big and has a huge circular drive, it is no Tony Soprano contemporary filled with plaster statues and lacquer furniture. With a façade of stone and pretty pale-yellow shingles, it has a traditional look. Regularly referred to in stories as Kerik’s “$1.2 million house”—a lame effort to make it sound expensive—the house is actually worth much more. Kerik bought the house that had been on the property, a small, unremarkable bi-level, for $1.2 million, and essentially knocked it down and built a new, 5,500-square-foot-plus McMansion worth several times the original purchase price. Set back from the road, the house has dark-cherry hardwood floors, a media room, a billiard room, and a gleaming, spa-like black-marble master bath.
When Kerik answers the door, in a loose-fitting cotton sweater, khakis, and bare feet, the 49-year-old is pleasant but subdued. Before we’re even out of the two-story entry, he mentions that he nearly canceled our appointment. In the wake of his ordeal, some days are better than others. This was actually our second meeting. We’d had lunch, along with Joe Tacopina, his highly regarded, telegenic lawyer and one of his best friends, at Salute!, a bustling Italian restaurant on Madison Avenue. On that day, Kerik, who was wearing an American-flag sweater, seemed in very good spirits.
Perhaps he was energized by the response of the lunchtime crowd. As he ambled through the restaurant, shoulders back, barrel chest at full extension, a touch of that familiar post-9/11, bulletproof swagger seemed to be back. Every head turned to look at him, and several people got up to walk over and shake his hand. When lunch was finished, a well-dressed man came over to say the meal was compliments of management and effusively thanked Kerik for coming in. (Famous is famous, I guess.)
Now, only a week later at the house, in the early-morning quiet of his office, he seems a much lesser figure. The tough-guy body language is gone, and his face actually seems to sag a little. We start slowly; Kerik’s mood appears to improve as we talk.
The overarching question, the puzzle everyone seems to want solved, is why he accepted the Cabinet nomination knowing what he had to hide. How could he not have been worried it would all come out? Kerik himself said to me, “I was reminded every day by the White House that this was going to be looked at under a microscope and completely picked apart.”
So how could he go forward? Was it arrogance? Hubris? Was it the notion, often attributed to his mentor and principal sponsor, Rudy Giuliani, that there is one set of rules for those in the inner circle and another set for everyone else? There’s no question it was a little of all these things. Given his unbelievable rise to the top, it is not at all difficult to imagine he believed he was destined to do this. Someone who knows him well told me that before there was a Department of Homeland Security, Kerik used to talk about one day becoming director of the FBI.
“I went in and handed Giuliani a letter and said, ‘I gotta go. It’s not gonna end as long as I’m here,’” Kerik says. “We cried together.”
And then came 9/11. Whatever transformative effect it had on America as a country, the attack had an impact on Giuliani and Kerik that is beyond measure. In the blink of an eye, the cantankerous, abrasive, overbearing mayor who had managed, after nearly eight years in office, to wear out even many of his supporters, was reborn. The negative side of his ledger was wiped clean. He was anointed, by acclamation, America’s mayor, a national—even international—figure of strength, compassion, and virtue. And standing right there beside him was his loyal second, Bernie Kerik, who, overnight, went from being simply New York’s 40th police commissioner to a comic-book superhero.
It’s hard to overstate what happened to them. They would get a spontaneous standing ovation whenever they walked into a restaurant. They were lionized by the media. They were honored by the queen of England. The boys could do no wrong. They were sainted. Even when John Lehman, former secretary of the Navy, charged at the 9/11 hearings that New York’s Police and Fire departments were woefully unprepared for the attack—forced to respond without even having radios that functioned properly—his harsh criticism fell mostly on deaf ears. Nor did anyone seem to mind the shameless 9/11 profiteering, the fact that every handshake seemed to be a contract they were going to get later. Giuliani Partners has racked up tens of millions of dollars of business based largely on the former mayor’s post-9/11 superhero status.
But in truth, even before he was wrapped in the cloak of 9/11, Kerik had a sense of invulnerability. Given his background and the dangerous work he’d done, he’d come to believe that nothing could happen to him. One cop who’s known him for years describes Kerik’s attitude this way: “I get shot at, but I don’t get hit. I save wounded cops. I don’t get wounded.”
It was well-crafted, highly effective performance art. Kerik’s interpretation of the cop’s cop. The shaved head, the thick biceps, the stoic demeanor, the snappy-looking NYPD windbreaker with the sleeves pushed up to reveal his forearms. Kerik had a sixth sense about his image, and he recognized that perception is often reality.
Kerik, however, is adamant that he didn’t view accepting the Homeland Security nomination as taking a risk. “The process is ever-present in your mind; it’s always there,” he says, relaxing in a high-back, soft-green, tufted-velvet chair in a sitting area that’s off to one side of his office. “You worry about everything. But you know what you know and you think what you think. I have to live in the real world, and everything that’s come out is stuff I either told the White House about or they already knew.”
Suddenly, his wife, Hala, 36, comes in to tell him something. A native of Syria, she came here when she was 14; they met in the dentist’s office where she worked. “Okay,” she says after a quick hello, “I’ll get out of your hair.” Then, from the hallway, she adds, “Not that you actually have any.”
Kerik’s office, which has a flat-screen plasma TV, and a desk that looks heavy enough to crush a Cadillac, is filled with the mementos of a celebrated public life. There are pictures with Bush in various settings; lots of photos with Giuliani before, during, and after 9/11; shots of him in Iraq; and a brass plaque that reads THE BERNARD B. KERIK COMPLEX, the jail better known as the Tombs.
“Look,” he says, “I’m not the norm. I’m not the kind of person usually considered for a Cabinet post. Most of the nominees have gone to a good college and a top law school. When they get out, they work for a senator, they work in the U.S. Attorney’s office, they work at a top firm on Wall Street. They do A, B, C, and D. Well, that’s not what I was doing,” he says as a smile crosses his face. “I was booming doors, chasing the Cali cartel, getting into gunfights, and doing all kinds of crazy stuff.”
The one thing Kerik says he didn’t discuss with the White House is what he calls the “gossipy stuff,” his affairs with Jeanette Pinero, a Corrections officer, and with book publisher Judith Regan. Though he is still friends with Pinero, his romantic involvement with her ended, he says, before his marriage in 1998. His involvement with the mercurial Regan, however, is more complicated.
Their apparently stormy relationship began during work on his best-selling book, The Lost Son, which Regan published, and it played out in Kerik’s waning days as police commissioner. Since then, Kerik has publicly taken the high road. He will say only that they became close during the work on his memoir and that she always conducted herself in a professional manner.
People close to Kerik, however, say that he ended the relationship and that Regan, who is not someone to be trifled with, was furious. They claim that, once Kerik withdrew his name from consideration, she leaked information about him. Stories have been floated that he harassed her, bugged her car, caused her to fear for her safety, and, of course, that at least one of their romantic liaisons took place in an apartment overlooking ground zero. (Regan declined to comment.)
Kerik says that there were a handful of apartments set aside for Police and Fire Department brass who were working round the clock, often sleeping in their offices. The idea, he says, that they were for rescue workers is patently ridiculous. “How would that’ve worked? There’d be hundreds or even thousands of workers waiting in line to use one of these apartments to shower or get some sleep.” Nevertheless, the symbolism here is overwhelming.
As Kerik talks about some of the charges that have been leveled against him, his mood begins to darken. At some point I notice that he has turned sideways in the chair, with one leg hanging over the arm. Sunlight is streaming in through the wood blinds, shining brightly on half of his face, with the other half in shadows.
“After 30 years of public service,” he begins haltingly, “after 30 years of fighting injustice and risking my life, to now have people mock that 30-year career based on lies, exaggerated innuendo, and all of this Fahrenheit 9/11–connect-the-dots stuff … I trained my whole life for this, fighting drug dealers, getting in gun battles, going to Iraq, living through 9/11.
“Several times that day I really didn’t think I was gonna make it out. I was standing across the street from the North Tower when the second plane hit. I remember Hector Santiago dragging me up the block by my belt. All kinds of shit was raining down on us. An airplane wheel fell right in front of us. Hector got hit with something in the back of his leg. And then the dust and the gas when we were trapped inside 75 Barclay Street. To live through all the stuff I’ve done in my life and to lose this opportunity … ” His voice trails off, and he looks out the window. Tears are streaming down his cheeks.
There is an excruciating minute-long silence. “Whether my nanny had legal status or not had nothing to do with the kind of job I was going to do,” he says, regaining control. “Then people use these opportunities to attempt to destroy you. They don’t have the courage to stand up to you face-to-face. None of this handful of people—and that’s all it is, maybe five or six people—had the balls to attack me until I’d withdrawn. For the first eight days, no one came forward.”
But Kerik knows that what happened was ultimately his own fault. There is no one to blame. Were there unfair stories written about him? Absolutely. Were some things blown up or taken completely out of context? No question. But he is keenly aware that he opened the door with his behavior. If his judgment had been more consistent, if he hadn’t played so fast and loose with the rules, none of the other stuff would’ve stuck.
“I know I fucked up,” he says flatly. “I made some major mistakes, and they catch up to you. I didn’t focus enough on ethical issues. But I still believe that my successes over my 30-year career outweigh the errors in judgment.”
Of everything he’s been accused of, the thing that bothers him the most, the charge that really eats at him, is the claim that he’s connected to organized crime. “I’m as close to organized crime as I am to Saddam Hussein,” he says. “It’s ridiculous.”
The accusation is based on two distinct but obliquely related episodes. The first centers on Larry Ray, who was the best man at Kerik’s wedding in 1998. In the mid-nineties, Ray and Kerik were fast friends. Ray seemed to be really plugged in. He introduced Kerik to a wide range of people, including Mikhail Gorbachev, Christie Todd Whitman, and Jim Florio. One of these introductions was to a guy named Frank DiTommaso, owner of a construction company called Interstate Industrial.
Interstate, which was the object of a series of investigations in New York and New Jersey for alleged ties to organized crime, sought a big contract at the time with the city. When DiTommaso was looking for help handling the investigations—one by the city’s Trade Waste Commission and the other by New Jersey’s Casino Control Commission—he hired Larry Ray.
But while it has been widely reported that DiTommaso hired Ray after Kerik vouched for him—“He’s a top-shelf guy,” was Kerik’s description—DiTommaso says this is not true: “I had been good friends with Larry Ray for years,” he says. “Why would I need Kerik to vouch for him? I gave sworn testimony about this that has been taken totally out of context. When Kerik said Larry was ‘top-shelf,’ we were just making small talk. I didn’t decide to hire Larry until much later.” He also hired Kerik’s brother.
Worse was that Kerik, who has a history of money problems, accepted gifts from Ray while he was Corrections commissioner and didn’t report them. Ray and another friend kicked in $10,000 for Kerik’s wedding reception at the Chanticler catering hall in Short Hills, New Jersey, in 1998. He also bought Kerik over $4,000 worth of Bellini baby furniture when Kerik’s daughter was born.
Ray turned out to be a kind of high-level con man who pleaded guilty to a felony charge of stock fraud. When he got in trouble, he asked Kerik for help. But Kerik, by then police commissioner, cut him off. Ray, who felt like Kerik owed him, was angry when he got the cold shoulder and began speaking out. “I felt, with everything I have learned,” Ray told the Daily News about Kerik in December, “that he would disgrace the country and the office of the president.”
Kerik says the White House knew all about his relationship with Ray. A staffer who called Kerik during the vetting process was a former federal prosecutor in the Eastern District, where Ray was indicted. Kerik’s bad judgment with Ray makes it believable that something may have been amiss in his relationship with DiTommaso as well, and—you have to connect the dots here—that he was somehow tied to the mob. The city Department of Investigation is looking into the unreported gifts from Ray.
This whole affair also lent credibility to another episode. In 1999, Kerik bought an apartment on 239th Street in Riverdale, which he then spent about $50,000 renovating. Stories written about this, however, said that he bought two apartments and combined them. To do this, the Daily News reported, he hired a contractor named Ed Sisca, who’d been indicted in a bid-rigging scheme and was later sentenced to four and a half years. Sisca, as it turns out, was the son of Gambino capo Alphonse “Funzi” Sisca.
It was further claimed that the engineer whose name appears on the construction permit was a guy named Charles Marino, who later pleaded guilty to filing false documents with the Department of Environmental Protection. The truth here, as far as Kerik goes, is very different from what was reported. It’s true that the two apartments were combined, but according to Jay Fenwick, a lawyer who represents the building’s management company, this was done long before Kerik entered the picture. And the shady contractor and engineer, he says, were hired by the building’s management, not Kerik. Fenwick told the Bronx district attorney’s office, which is investigating these claims, that Kerik was not involved at all.
But given his other lapses, it was easy to believe that Kerik had done something wrong again. In exactly the same way that it was easy to believe that a guy who was fined $2,500 for having detectives investigate his mother’s death for his memoir would also have Corrections officers getting overtime pay for working security at his wedding—a wedding where 60 to 70 percent of his guests were armed cops. Kerik adamantly denies that anyone was on overtime that day working security for him.
On December 1, when Kerik walked out of the White House as the Homeland Security designee, the first thing he did was call his wife. Then he called his brother, and then Rudy Giuliani. Kerik and Giuliani have been together since 1992, and their relationship is, by any measure, extraordinary. They met in 1989, shortly after Giuliani had lost his race for mayor against David Dinkins. Kerik, an undercover cop at the time, with hair down his back, an ear full of piercings, and a wardrobe of leather pants and cowboy boots, was helping the parents of murdered police officer Michael Buczek start a foundation in their son’s honor.
It was infatuation at first sight. Kerik entertained Giuliani with hard-boiled cop stories, and Giuliani was, for Kerik, “the most single-minded, brilliant person” he’d ever met. As Giuliani began to get ready for another run at City Hall, Kerik convinced him, according to an account in his book, that he needed people around him he could trust. Kerik got a couple of his buddies to provide security and to drive Giuliani during the week. Kerik handled the weekend. Hours in the car enabled them to get to know one another in a way few friends ever do.
Dick Grasso gave Kerik some survival tips, one disgraced public figure to another. He told him to stop reading the paper and watching TV.
Though the rumor has long been that Giuliani engineered Kerik’s Cabinet nomination, Kerik says it’s not true. “Rudy did make a call, but I don’t think it was necessary. I’d gone to Iraq for President Bush, I campaigned all across the country for him, and I was given a key speaking role in prime time at the Republican convention.”
Two days after Kerik accepted the president’s offer, he was publicly introduced in a Friday-morning photo op at the White House. He went home for the weekend and then was back in Washington for Monday, Tuesday, and much of Wednesday to lay the groundwork for his confirmation. At the same time, staff people at Giuliani Partners were preparing the paperwork and documentation for the formal application process. Three offices were filled with stacks of documents related to Kerik’s application.
On Wednesday, when Kerik returned to New York, he was told the staff had discovered a fourteen-month gap during which, it appeared, no taxes were paid for his nanny. Kerik went to Giuliani to ask what to do. Giuliani told him it wasn’t good, but as long as it was a tax issue and not an immigration problem, it wasn’t a fatal blow. The next afternoon, Thursday, with the anxiety level now cranked up pretty high, someone walked into Kerik’s office and asked him if he was sure the Social Security number for the nanny was the right one. Kerik says he was dumbfounded. In addition to the tax problem, the relentless calls from the media, and the mountains of paperwork that still had to be finished, he now had to worry about verifying his nanny’s Social Security number.
By the evening, with the work proceeding at a frenzied pace, everyone was lingering in Kerik’s office. “Then somebody walked in,” Kerik says. “I don’t remember who. In fact I don’t remember much about that moment other than hearing these words: ‘We have a problem with the domestic. It appears the Social Security number is registered to somebody else.’ Suddenly I could hear my heart pounding in my head,” Kerik says, “and I wanted to take the fucking gun off the desk and shoot him.
“I said, ‘Somebody get Rudy. I gotta talk to Rudy.’”
Giuliani came in and began to walk through the problem with them one step at a time. It was around ten o’clock, and everyone agreed that first thing in the morning, they’d call someone at Immigration. “I went home that night, and it was like somebody had sucked all the blood out of me,” Kerik says. “I was exhausted and I was beaten.”
By 10 A.M. on Friday—a week to the day after Bush had announced Kerik was his choice for Homeland Security—the problem was confirmed. Giuliani told Kerik he had to call the White House. Kerik made his first call to Dina Powell at eleven, and by 8:30 that night, he had talked to Powell twice, Alberto Gonzales four times, Andy Card three times, and the president once.
Andy Card told Kerik the president would support whatever decision he decided to make. In the early evening, Kerik called Card and told him he was withdrawing. Kerik asked what the procedure was and was told to draft a letter to the president (“nothing too specific; keep it general”) and fax it to the White House.
At 8:30, Kerik’s cell phone rang. “By now I’m a fucking mess,” he says. “I’m crying, I’m totally out of it, and it’s the president on the phone.” Kerik says they talked for about five minutes, and Bush told him he didn’t think he should’ve withdrawn but that he understood and respected his decision.
When Kerik hung up, he sent his letter. Card called again at about ten to give Kerik a heads-up that the White House was going to release the news in about ten minutes. He asked Kerik if he was ready. “Remember when I told you it would be really mean and nasty and aggressive if you went forward?” Card asked. “Well, it’s going to be really mean and nasty and aggressive now, too.”
Even though his phone and BlackBerry started buzzing relentlessly, Kerik didn’t think about Card’s warning. “Rudy came in before I went home,” Kerik recalls, “and he tried to console me. He said, ‘Shit happens. We’ll get through this.’ I wasn’t looking ahead. There was too much going on, and I guess I thought, Okay, I made a mistake, and now I have to pay for it by losing a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. I didn’t think there’d be much more to it than that.”
On Saturday morning, Kerik went outside to talk to the crowd of reporters camped in front of his house. On Sunday, he was the lead story in all the papers, and on Monday morning it was pretty clear it was going to get ugly. And then a strange thing happened. Dick Grasso, the former head of the New York Stock Exchange, called.
“We’ve been friends for years, not best friends, but friends,” Kerik says of Grasso, adding how much respect he has for him as a result of the extraordinary job he did getting the stock market up and running after 9/11. “He asked me how I was holding up. I told him it was frustrating but I was okay. He then gave me a kind of class in how to deal with what was going on.”
Grasso, who suffered through his own public flogging over the disclosure of his huge salary, gave Kerik some survival tips, one disgraced public figure to another. He told him to stop reading the papers and stop watching TV, and not even let any friends or family recount what they read or saw.
Then he told Kerik if he wanted to get away, he could help him with that. “I told him I couldn’t leave, and he pointed out that the press wasn’t going anywhere. They’ll be out there for days, he said. Still, leaving seemed crazy.” But on Tuesday, there were even more reporters outside, and by the afternoon, Kerik was starting to lose it. He called Grasso. “Tell me what to do. Help me.”
Grasso told Kerik to get his family together, pack some clothes for a few days, and drive out to the Long Island Expressway. “I asked where we were going, and he said, ‘Don’t worry about it, just do it.’”
So Kerik loaded the family into the car and followed his instructions. When he reached the expressway, he called Grasso, who told him to get off at Exit 40. “I’ll be right on the side of the road in a black Suburban.” When they hooked up, Grasso got out of his SUV and told Kerik to follow him.
“An hour and a half later, we were still driving,” Kerik says. “Finally we end up in Bridgehampton, and we pull down this road and these gates open up and there’s a really nice house at the end of the driveway.”
Kerik says Grasso took them inside, turned on all the lights, started a fire, and said the house was theirs for as long as they wanted it. Before he left, he took Kerik out to the garage, and in the back of his car was several thousand dollars’ worth of food. “He’d gotten everything we could possibly need,” Kerik says. “I thought, What is this all about? It was a trip. We stayed for three nights. By then, all of the press were gone.”
But the story had remarkable legs. And the impact was spreading. Kerik was the primary target, but shrapnel was starting to hit Giuliani. Stories were popping up that blamed him for the Kerik debacle, that questioned his judgment, and that looked at the possible negative blowback he might suffer in any future run for office.
Initially, Giuliani was right there with Kerik, vigorously defending him. They were, after all, brothers in arms, part of their own insular tough-guy subculture that is the product of some strange alchemy of cop, jock, and mob ethos. There are tribal rules and rituals as clearly defined as those of any gang. These are demonstrative, physical men who hug and kiss one another with bravado. They cover for one another. They help one another. When one succeeds, they all succeed. And the one invaluable attribute is loyalty, not competence. And it is precisely this anti-intellectual, indecorous, testosterone-soaked behavior that seemed to make Kerik so irresistible to Bush.
Both Kerik and Giuliani claim to have seen The Godfather more than 50 times, and the movie provides a bizarre code of behavior for them (as it does for gangsters) in much the same way that The Art of War serves as some weird manual for ambitious corporate climbers. But even in The Godfather, loyalty has its limits. And so by the third week, cracks began to appear in Giuliani’s resolve. He was quoted talking about Kerik’s “big mistakes,” and saying that Kerik would have saved himself and others some trouble if he’d dealt with the problems earlier.
One person familiar with the inner workings of Giuliani Partners said that Giuliani sent someone to tell Kerik it was time to step down. Kerik steadfastly denies this is what happened. “On Monday and Tuesday of that week, I went into his office and offered to leave, and he kept telling me no,” Kerik says. “But the next day, I went in and handed him a letter and said, ‘I gotta go. It’s not gonna end as long as I’m here. They’ll attack you and attack the firm.’ It was very emotional. We cried together.”
Kerik dismisses the notion of a rift between the two of them. “Rudy is like a brother to me,” he says. “We’ve been through an enormous amount together, and he’s godfather to my two daughters. Something like this is not going to change our relationship.”
One thing is clear: Kerik will never work at Giuliani Partners again. He is shopping for space in midtown to house a new company he is putting together, the Kerik Group LLC. Its business, of course, will be security consulting. Kerik has resigned from the Taser board and several other boards, in anticipation of starting his company.
In an odd turn of events, the new business will make him a competitor of Giuliani Partners’. “He doesn’t want a lot of accounts,” Kerik says. “He’s really only interested in the very high end and working at very high margins. I’ll be smaller and able to do things for less. We may compete here and there.”
There is great disappointment among those closest to Kerik in how things turned out—and disappointment with him. “A bunch of us have really mixed feelings about what’s happened,” says one close friend. “On the one hand, we believe he would’ve been great in the job, and he got screwed. But on the other hand, he should’ve shown better judgment and not left himself so vulnerable. He obviously got hurt the worst, but he wasn’t the only one. He let a lot of people down.”
Kerik knows that, all too well. “I don’t want anyone else blamed for what I did,” he says. “I made the mistakes, and what’s happened, well, it’s the price you pay for the life you choose.”