Lieberman is White House's new nominee for Homeland Security

 

US: The Bush administration has twice approached Democratic Senator Joseph Lieberman to head the Department of Homeland Security, following the embarrassing withdrawal of President George Bush's first choice for the post, Mr Bernard Kerik, it was reported yesterday writes Conor O'Clery, North America Editor in New York

Mr Bush is said to be anxious to put the Kerik affair behind him, as questions grow about his judgment in planning to entrust one of the most sensitive law enforcement posts in the country to a person over whom there are multiple ethical questions.

More allegations surfaced yesterday about Mr Kerik's colourful past, including a claim in the New York Times that he entertained a woman friend, prominent New York publisher Ms Judith Regan, in an apartment overlooking Ground Zero late in 2001 when he was New York police commissioner.

The apartment in the 28-storey Liberty View building in Battery Park City was originally donated by the landlord, at Mr Kerik's request, for the use of exhausted police and rescue workers, the Times said.

Sometime in the autumn of 2001, Mr Kerik, who is married with two children, asked to rent the two-bedroom apartment for his own use and engaged in an extramarital affair with Ms Regan there, even as bodies were still being recovered from Ground Zero below the bedroom window.

Ms Regan published Mr Kerik's best-selling autobiography in late 2001, just before he stepped down as police chief.

The New York Post reported that some time during the year-long affair, Ms Regan received a call at her office from Mr Kerik's other woman friend, correction officer Ms Jeanette Pinero, who allegedly had found a love letter from Ms Regan in the apartment.

The Post reported that Ms Regan angrily broke off the affair on learning that Mr Kerik's wife was pregnant. A friend of Ms Regan said that the publisher told him that Mr Kerik "went crazy" and had her followed after the affair ended.

Mr Kerik withdrew his nomination on Friday after confessing he had not paid taxes for a Mexican nanny who had been in the country illegally, and who had left the country just before the nomination.

The US media has since reported that Mr Kerik received lavish gifts when he was a city official; that he had once declared himself bankrupt; that he faced court claims over blocking the promotion of officials who reprimanded Ms Pinero; that he was the subject of an arrest warrant for an unpaid bill; and that he helped a New Jersey waste management company suspected of having ties with the Mafia.

White House officials said they did not consider any of the issues they were first aware of to be enough to disqualify Mr Kerik, and they had noted the support for him of New York's two Democratic senators, Mr Charles Schumer and Ms Hillary Rodham Clinton.

Officials are also believed to have assumed that if Mr Kerik had survived the scrutiny of then mayor Mr Rudolph Giuliani and the city's lively tabloid press when getting the top police job, he must be "clean".

Mr Bush's judgment may have been clouded by his liking for Mr Kerik, a tough "can-do" official who campaigned aggressively for the Bush-Cheney ticket in the presidential election, observers said.

White House press secretary Mr Scott McClellan said: "Commissioner Kerik withdrew his name. The matter is closed, and now we're moving forward on another nominee." Mr Lieberman is apparently the second choice of the White House for the job. His centrist policies helped scupper his aspirations to become Democratic presidential nominee, but now make him an attractive candidate with the Bush administration desperately anxious to avoid another Kerik-type debacle.

However, he is reported to be reluctant to take the Homeland Security job, partly because a by-election for his Connecticut Senate seat could increase the Republican majority in the 100-seat US Senate.

Mr Lieberman, who has made no comment, has also reportedly been sounded out for the position of US ambassador to the United Nations to replace Mr John Danforth, who is retiring unexpectedly after six months.

Mr Lieberman received endorsements from both sides in the Senate where Ms Susan Collins, a Republican, said: "There's no doubt that Joe would provide strong leadership, and he's exceptionally well-qualified for the post" in Homeland Security.

Mr Lieberman was former vice-president Al Gore's running mate in 2000, and wrote the legislation that created the Department of Homeland Security. He was also co-sponsor of the legislation authorising Mr Bush to order the invasion of Iraq in 2003.