What didn't they know, and why didn't they know it?

Published December 14, 2004 4:48PM (EST)

The hits keep coming on the Bernie Kerik story. It turns out that the White House's vetting of the former NYPD commissioner was not some rush job after all; Kerik's background had been probed and prodded for weeks, and he may have been under consideration for homeland security chief since the summer. Which begs the question: Just how lame was the background check for Kerik?

Concerns about Kerik's colorful past, as you no doubt have heard, have gone way beyond the initially reported "nanny problem," ranging from a newly discovered third wife to multiple extramarital affairs to dubious business deals and associations. And some of these issues -- especially the more relevant ones about his business dealings --- should have been discovered, no doubt, in the vetting process. The New York Times reported today that in June 2000, New York City's leading investigative agency heard testimony about Kerik's connection to a construction company owner strongly suspected of having mob ties. Two months later, Rudy Giuliani named Kerik police commissioner, and Rudy claims he had no idea -- and didn't know until very recently -- about Kerik's supposed link to the allegedly shady businessman. The White House also claims not to have known, even while admitting the background check on Kerik was a more thorough affair than officials previously acknowledged.

The Times today questioned what the Kerik experience says about the quality of background checks for administration officials in rather polite language, saying: "But the fact that neither Mr. Giuliani nor the White House had learned of Mr. Kerik's dealings with [the construction company owner], or of the city investigation that at least briefly explored those ties, would appear to highlight the vulnerabilities in background checks that are made of government officials, including those poised to serve in some of the most high-profile posts in the city and the nation."

Similar questions are being asked about New York City, and why the city's department of investigation under rising GOP star Giuliani didn't catch these issues long ago. As Newsday put it in a headline today: "How did Giuliani miss Kerik's record?" Another question is whether this whole affair will ultimately tarnish Giuliani's own reputation and his image as "America's Mayor" enough to hinder his national political aspirations.

By Geraldine Sealey

Geraldine Sealey is senior news editor at Salon.com.

MORE FROM Geraldine Sealey

Related Topics ------------------------------------------

War Room