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Rudy Giuliani’s Kerik Problem

11 minute read
Michael Duffy

Bernard Kerik, a mid-level New York City corrections official, was at home late one night in January 1995 when the telephone rang. It was his boss, Mayor Rudy Giuliani, who wanted to talk. Kerik had been Giuliani’s driver and bodyguard during much of the mayoral campaign, and he offered to meet the mayor the next morning. “No,” said Giuliani. “Now.” It was 10:30, but Kerik trooped over to Gracie Mansion and joined the mayor in a poorly lit parlor, where they shared a bottle of red wine that had been a gift from Nelson Mandela. “It was good to see him again,” Kerik recalled. “It reminded me of the conversations we used to have during the campaign.” The two men talked for a while, discussing Giuliani’s first year as mayor and the unfinished tasks ahead, like cleaning up the Rikers Island jail.

Then Giuliani gave Kerik the news: He would announce the next day that he was appointing Kerik deputy corrections commissioner. The promotion would make Kerik the No. 2 man at the agency overseeing the city’s prisons and lockups. Kerik balked, worried about his qualifications, but Giuliani insisted. “Just do this,” the mayor said. “Do what I’m telling you.” Relenting, Kerik agreed, but as he tells the story in his autobiography, what happened next was a little creepy. “In this dark sitting room, one by one, the mayor’s closest staff members came forward and kissed me. I know the mayor is as big a fan of The Godfather as I am and I wonder if he noticed how much becoming part of his team resembled becoming part of a Mafia family. I was being made. I was now a part of the Giuliani family, getting the endorsement of the other family members, the other capos.”

Giuliani would go on to name Kerik his top corrections officer, then his police commissioner and eventually his business partner when the city-hall years came to an end. The two were inseparable for the better part of a decade. Now Kerik, 52, has been indicted by a federal grand jury for allegedly taking bribes from businessmen with possible Mob ties and could face up to 20 years in prison and fines that could top several million dollars. Giuliani faces a different test: Could his reputation as a crime-busting prosecutor and mayor be unraveled by a handpicked police chief facing criminal conspiracy charges? Federal prosecutors unsealed the Kerik indictment at a moment when Giuliani, while leading in the national GOP nomination polls, still trails Mitt Romney in most of the early-primary states. If the Kerik case goes to trial, it will probably do so next year, when Republicans would prefer that any critical light be directed at the Democratic rival.

It is worth remembering that choosing a police chief was a mission-critical task for a mayor of New York City. The call was the most important Giuliani had to make. And so the choice of Kerik and the relationship between the two men raise legitimate questions about how Giuliani would perform as Commander in Chief: Does he choose his team members for their competence or for their obedience? Does he prize loyalty at the expense of ethics? Or does he now see in his relationship with Kerik clear lessons about how he rewarded and promoted those around him? For Giuliani, who is campaigning on the strength of his claim that he is a master at homeland security, Kerik is at best a question mark.

Loyalty isn’t just any virtue for Giuliani; in his memoirs he called it “the vital virtue.” That’s an interesting plug from a man who has been married three times and informed one of his ex-wives that their marriage was over at a press conference. Loyalty, an attractive virtue in friendship, is an alarming one in politics, when faithful cronies are promoted in public service simply because they show fealty to the boss. ‘Twas ever thus, of course. But with the ghosts of Alberto Gonzales and Harriet Miers still rattling around loudly in Washington, Americans have learned what can happen when a President places too much faith in those who have served him–and only him–for years, and then puts them in pivotal positions of law enforcement.

Kerik never fir the profile of most other members in Giuliani’s posse. While they spent their 20s and 30s attending prestigious colleges and law schools, Kerik was facing tests they couldn’t imagine. He was born in Newark, N.J., to an alcoholic father and a street-walking mother. His parents drifted to Ohio in the 1950s and separated when he was 2. His mother left Kerik in the care of a new boyfriend’s mother until his father turned up after a few months and rescued him. He never saw his mother again. After high school, Kerik joined the Army and became an MP, serving in Korea and later back home before being discharged. After a few years of working in Saudi Arabia as a hired gun in various security-related jobs, he became a cop, working first in Passaic, N.J., where he was the county’s youngest jail warden ever. In 1986 he fulfilled a longtime dream and joined the NYPD.

Kerik worked his way slowly up the NYPD food chain, as both a uniformed and a plainclothes cop. He earned a reputation as flashy, intense, sometimes emotional and usually effective. “I was booming doors, chasing the Cali cartel, getting into gunfights and doing all kinds of crazy stuff,” he once recalled. At the funeral of a cop in 1989 he met Giuliani, and the two bonded after Kerik became the candidate’s weekend driver during the 1993 campaign. “Look,” Kerik told Giuliani at the time, “you’re going to spend the next two years in your car. If you can’t trust the people you’re with, if they don’t have your back, then you’re done.” All that time at the wheel of Giuliani’s town car gave Kerik what cops call the “hook,” or juice, that he’d never had. In 1998 Giuliani put Kerik in charge of the entire corrections division, overseeing 12,000 employees and a budget of $800Â million.

Giuliani has never been famous for tolerating dissent or sharing credit. His assistants in the U.S. Attorney’s office had a tart nickname for the people Giuliani often promoted: they were called “the Sure-Rudys,” guys who would echo the boss’s instincts and decisions no matter their wisdom–as in “Sure, Rudy.” The Sure-Rudys weren’t very smart, a former assistant said, but they would reliably tell Giuliani he was right. Giuliani forced out his innovative police commissioner William Bratton in 1996 after Bratton seemed to like the media spotlight too much for Hizzoner’s taste (see box). But Kerik was loyal above all and ruled the sometimes lawless corrections operations with an iron fist. In 2000 Giuliani handed Kerik the 100-year-old solid-gold badge and named him New York’s 40th commissioner of police.

Over the next few years the two grew closer. Kerik and Giuliani were literally inseparable on 9/11 and in the months that followed. Crime declined on Kerik’s watch, though the big drop had taken place years before. After years of mutual hostility, City Hall’s relations with local African-American leaders slowly began to heal. Kerik’s press was good, but unlike Bratton, Kerik took care to stay in Giuliani’s shadow when it mattered. By the time Kerik stepped down in 2002, Giuliani was the godfather to two of Kerik’s kids. The two men then took their buddy act private: that year, Giuliani took in Kerik at Giuliani Partners, the firm the mayor set up to perform security and emergency consulting work for companies and governments around the globe. In addition, Giuliani and Kerik had their own partnership within the partnership, named Giuliani-Kerik, which consulted on prison management, threat assessment and crime reduction.

There was one notable flameout: in 2003 Kerik went to Baghdad and Amman to help train Iraqi police but walked out on the job after only a few months. However, the Giuliani halo was still strong enough in late 2004 for George W. Bush to nominate Kerik as the replacement for departing Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge. It had begun as Giuliani’s idea, of course, and the White House glommed onto it quickly. At first, the pick seemed to confirm nothing so much as Giuliani’s rising star in the GOP heavens. But within a few days, problems arose. Kerik, White House vetters discovered, had an undocumented nanny. And soon rumors of other, specified blemishes in his past floated around Washington. After an agonizing few days, Kerik withdrew. Giuliani seemed mystified by all the fuss. “Everything seemed pretty normal,” Giuliani said that day, “at least by Washington or New York standards.”

But Kerik’s troubles were only beginning. He soon faced questions from the State of New York about allegedly taking bribes while at the corrections division. Not long after, the Department of Justice began its own probe. In 2005 Kerik resigned from Giuliani Partners.

According to the 16-count indictment handed up on Nov. 9, Interstate Industrial Corp., a hauling firm that was trying to get a business license from New York City while under investigation for possible ties to organized crime, paid $255,000 for the redesign and renovation of Kerik’s apartment in the Riverdale neighborhood of the Bronx. The renovations included new walls and floors, a new kitchen, new marble bathrooms, a Jacuzzi and a “marble entrance rotunda.” An official of the firm, the indictment charges, paid more than $236,000 in rent for a second Kerik apartment. At the same time, Kerik allegedly contacted regulators on the hauling firm’s behalf to enable it to do business with the city. Prosecutors allege that Kerik also lied to investigators as well as on required disclosure forms about receiving these payments and failed to declare these and other kinds of income on his tax returns.

Kerik pleaded not guilty to all charges. Giuliani quickly acknowledged his error in promoting Kerik. Standing with two former U.S. Attorneys in front of a county courthouse in Dubuque, Iowa, Giuliani said, “I regret the fact that I didn’t do a better job of vetting him, and I’ve apologized to the President for that.”

There is some evidence that Giuliani had at least a hint of his top cop’s darker connections. Earlier this month, the New York Times reported that the man who oversaw the vetting of Kerik to be police commissioner in 2000 was aware of Kerik’s ties to Interstate Industrial. According to his notes, the investigator, Edward Kuriansky, briefed both Giuliani and his chief counsel on the matter. Giuliani told a state grand jury last year that while he recalled Kuriansky’s briefing, he had no recollection of hearing about Kerik’s relationship with the firm or its principals. (Kuriansky, whose office of investigations reported to the mayor in the Giuliani era, died in July before any discrepancy could be clarified.)

Was Giuliani too close to Kerik to ask hard questions? Giuliani’s rivals certainly pointed to Kerik’s indictment as a signal that something isn’t jake in the storied House of Rudy. “Very sad and disappointing,” said Romney. McCain ally Tom Ridge, a straight arrow who turned down a chance to be on the GOP ticket in 1996 because he did not believe he was ready for the job of Vice President, was sharper. “We’re not talking about some urban city patronage job,” said Ridge. “That’s not what a Cabinet Secretary’s about.”

Giuliani is betting that voters will see his promotion of Kerik in the broader context of his record. “I’m not running as the perfect candidate, and I’m not running as the perfect President,” he said. “What I’m running as is someone who’s had a great deal of success, and I think I can bring that success to Washington.” But he is making another bet about GOP voters too. An operative from a rival campaign believes that Giuliani’s bid for the White House can be reduced to two sentences: “I’m not a nice guy. But the people you fear, fear me.” If that’s right, Giuliani isn’t looking for voters to love him, or even like him. He just wants their respect. And then, who knows? Loyalty may follow.

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