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Kerik's life not all an open book

December 3, 2004

The story of Bernard Kerik, who sources say President George W. Bush has tapped as Homeland Security director, is literally one of rags to riches.

It is the story of a man who overcame economic hardships and a lack of formal education through the sheer force of his personality.

It is also a story of a man whose life and career have been dogged by charges of impropriety, although none have stuck.

And it is a story of mystery as key details of Kerik's life remain untold.

According to his autobiography, "The Lost Son," Kerik grew up in Paterson, N.J., the son of an alcoholic father and a mother who abandoned him to become a prostitute.

Kerik, a high school dropout, enlisted in the Army at age 19 and was sent to Korea, where he fathered a daughter. He spent two years in Saudi Arabia as a contract military employee, then returned to New Jersey and joined the Passaic County sheriff's department, becoming warden of the county jail.

While in Saudi Arabia, he applied to the NYPD but never received a reply. With a flourish characteristic of many of his actions, he wrote a letter of complaint to then mayor Ed Koch. An application was sent forthwith.

Joining the NYPD in 1986, he became an undercover narcotics detective. In 1991, as Rudolph Giuliani began his campaign for mayor, Kerik volunteered as his driver and advance man. After his election, Giuliani appointed him correction commissioner.

There, Kerik was said to have boosted staff morale and reduced inmate-on-inmate crime.

In August 2000, Giuliani appointed Kerik to succeed Howard Safir as police commissioner. He selected Kerik, an eight-year veteran and third-grade detective, over First Deputy Joe Dunne, a 30-year veteran. Kerik's selection came despite the fact that he lacked a college degree - a requirement established in 1985 by then-Commissioner Ben Ward for anyone promoted above captain.

Kerik continued to keep crime down, while mending relationships with blacks and Hispanics, which deteriorated under Safir largely because of the Amadou Diallo shooting and the sodomizing of Abner Louima.

Then, 9/11 occurred. With Giuliani, Kerik became a constant presence at the World Trade Center site.

At the same time, Kerik was accused of using photographs taken by detectives at the WTC site for his book, which was published that November. He agreed to pay $2,500 to settle a Conflict of Interest Board finding that he had improperly used three city cops to travel to Ohio to learn details about his mother for the book.

After his publisher, Judith Regan, complained her cell phone was stolen while she was on a Fox television show, detectives were sent to the homes of Fox employees who were on the set at the time.

He was also accused of awarding the department's top medals to his cronies, one of whom was the chief who sent the detectives to the homes of the Fox employees. A second was one of the cops who traveled to Ohio.

Earlier this year, Police Commissioner Ray Kelly raised questions about Kerik's ordering four $50,000 high-tech doors for One Police Plaza, although no one has produced any evidence of this.

Nonetheless, Kerik's aura from 9/11 was such that during the 2001 mayoral campaign, Michael Bloomberg told voters he had asked Kelly to persuade Kerik to stay as commissioner. Instead, when Giuliani's term ended, Kerik resigned. The Bernard B. Kerik correction complex on Center Street is named for him. He also had the Police Foundation, a non-profit group that funds the commissioner's pet projects, pay a few thousands dollars for miniature busts of him to be given to his friends.

At Kerik's retirement dinner at the Sheraton in 2002, his long-lost Korean daughter appeared at his table. She and Kerik had recently reunited and she was already accepted into his family.

Then, in 2003, Kerik announced he was taking a six-month government assignment in Iraq to train the national police. He left after three months for reasons he has never explained.

In 2002, he joined the board of Taser International. Last month, as Taser's president and chief executive each sold $20 million of stock, Kerik sold his for $5.7 million.

Recent disclosures have questioned the safety of Taser's electrical guns, which are used by thousands of police departments. Did Kerik sell because he anticipated his Homeland Security appointment? Or is this the latest Kerik mystery?

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© 2004 Newsday, Inc. Reprinted with permission.