Even from Behind Bars, Bernie Kerik Passes Along His Infection

Feeling the Bern

Rose Gill Hearn has been the city's top municipal corruption investigator for more than a decade. As commissioner of the Department of Investigation since 2002, the former federal prosecutor, who favors pearls and conservative suits, has caught corrupt contractors, bent tax collectors, bribe-taking plumbing inspectors, an extortionist city councilman, and a housing commissioner using city funds as a personal piggy bank. She has earned a reputation as an antidote to the poisons that seep into City Hall.

But not even Hearn is immune to the forces of entropy that roil this town. The Voice has obtained documents that are part of an ongoing lawsuit that suggest that Hearn, early in her days in office, made some decisions that still haunt her. And the specter in question is none other than Bernard B. Kerik, the now-imprisoned police commissioner under Rudy Giuliani. Eight years after Kerik's plunge into infamy, Hearn may be forced to testify in open court about how she handled one of the most controversial issues of her tenure: the uncomfortably close relationship between Kerik and one of her direct reports, correction department inspector general Michael Caruso.

The details of the case are emerging as part of a wrongful termination lawsuit against Hearn filed five years ago by Caruso. Due to the federal and state criminal probes of Kerik—and a gag order in the suit itself—documents in the case had been locked behind a veil of confidentiality. But in December, a trove of memos, e-mails, and depositions were entered into the court file as part of the bitter, ongoing dispute. The records, obtained by the Voice, offer the most detailed portrait yet of how Hearn and her aides struggled for years to deal with the allegations that Caruso covered up wrongdoing to protect Kerik. And they open a window on the secretive operations of the Department of Investigation (DOI), the agency tasked with policing corruption across the city. DOI's website reads, "We get the worms out of the Big Apple." But the story of Hearn, Caruso, and Kerik reminds us that corruption can be a far subtler thing than we sometimes assume. And it's a story that may unhinge Hearn's scrupulously maintained reputation as a defender of the public trust.

As commissioner of the Department of Investigation, Rose Gill Hearn stands on the front lines of the city’s anti-corruption resistance. But can she escape the toxic cloud released by Bernie Kerik and her ex-employee Michael Caruso?
Richard Drew
As commissioner of the Department of Investigation, Rose Gill Hearn stands on the front lines of the city’s anti-corruption resistance. But can she escape the toxic cloud released by Bernie Kerik and her ex-employee Michael Caruso?
Bernie Kerik
Bernie Kerik

"I think it damages her legacy," says Richard Steier, editor of the Chief-Leader, the city's civil service newspaper, and an expert on the Kerik scandals. "You've got this tough DOI commissioner who is supposed to have a clear-eyed view of what is going on in city government, and in this case, she ignored things that should have been obvious to anyone."

Bernie Kerik was a creature created in Rudy Giuliani's underground laboratory. He was a rough-hewn former narcotics detective with no college degree, a street guy with a burly physique and a booming voice who talked his way into a job driving Rudy around town and organizing his security during the 1993 mayoral campaign. When Rudy won, he rewarded Kerik with a job in the correction department, and quickly promoted him to first deputy commissioner, vaulting him over a number of more qualified people.

According to Kerik's book, The Lost Son, when Rudy promoted him in 1995, the mayor shared a bottle of wine with him, then took him into a room where top City Hall aides kissed him on the cheek. Kerik later wrote it was like becoming a made man in the Mafia. And he acted the part: "I am a hunter of men," he once declared to a room full of junior commanders.

While Kerik won praise for reducing violence in the jails, his stints as correction commissioner (1998-2000) and then police commissioner (2000-2001, after Rudy picked him over the more qualified chief Joseph Dunne) were loaded with questionable decisions: He had an affair with a subordinate. He used correction officers on overtime to staff his wedding. He created a foundation that collected more than $1 million in tobacco-industry money, which then disappeared. He made a deal to sell scrap metal from Rikers Island to garbage haulers, and that money disappeared. He spent city money on custom-made busts of his own image. He also borrowed money and took favors from people who had business with the city, or who wanted to. He even used a free apartment near the still-smoldering ruins of the World Trade Center for trysts with two different women—one of whom was Judith Regan, his publisher. When Regan thought her phone had been stolen, Kerik dispatched five detectives to investigate. Most murders don't get five detectives.

And then there was the rogues' gallery making up his crew of cronies at both the Department of Correction and the NYPD. From Anthony Serra, a chief who forced correction employees to fix up his house and staff Republican campaigns on city time, to Deputy Commissioner Fred Patrick, who raided the Correction Foundation of $137,000 in part to pay for phone sex with prison inmates, to Chief of Staff John Picciano, who was accused of tax fraud and beating his girlfriend with a handgun.

Kerik, though, got a pass, mainly because he had Rudy's backing and because of his supposed heroism during and after the 9/11 attacks. And then, in December, 2004, the street guy reached the apex of his career: President Bush nominated him for the top job at the Department of Homeland Security.

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