WASHINGTON -- In a repeat of President Clinton's embarrassment in the search for a U.S. attorney general, his apparent new choice dropped out yesterday because she, too, had an illegal alien as a nanny for her child for seven years.
U.S. District Judge Kimba M. Wood, 49, of New York City, rumored for the past few days as almost certain to be named to head the Justice Department, took her name off the list by issuing a brief statement revealing that her son's baby sitter had been an illegal alien.
She insisted she had obeyed the law but said the "current political environment" forced her to step aside from a possible nomination.
The sudden disclosure brought a disappointing close to a week that had been largely positive for the new president, as he had been able to focus on issues of his choosing, such as welfare reform and economic revival.
The president said last night, "I understand and respect Judge Wood's decision not to proceed further with the possibility of being nominated as attorney general. I was greatly impressed with her as a lawyer, a judge and a person. I respect her legal talents, judicial record and integrity. I wish her well."
Exactly two weeks ago, corporate lawyer Zoe E. Baird, who actually had been chosen for attorney general, asked Mr. Clinton to withdraw her name because of a widespread public protest over her hiring of an illegal alien and her husband as a nanny and a driver.
One thing that might ease the new embarrassment and political setback for the president was that this time he had not formally selected Judge Wood. Even so, it seems that this development will again slow the process of finding a nominee for the only remaining vacancy in his Cabinet -- a nominee to head one of the most troubled departments of government.
It was not clear whether Mr. Clinton would now reopen the process, in a new search for a woman for the job, or would turn instead to one of the other supposed "finalists" of recent days: Washington lawyer and former federal prosecutor Charles F. C. Ruff, 53, a native of Baltimore, and former Virginia Gov. Gerald L. Baliles, 52.
Washington activists who have been following the search for a new attorney general were of mixed minds on whether the president would now be under new pressure to find a woman, because turning to a man would reinforce the notion that no qualified women could be found, or would be relieved of any political obligation to keep trying to find one.
The White House made an effort to get out the word last night that the administration's selection process had not been at fault in the case of Judge Wood.
George Stephanopoulos, White House communications director, said Judge Wood was asked three times if she had a problem related to hiring illegal aliens that would disqualify her -- twice by staff and once by Mr. Clinton. "Each time she said she did not have a problem," Mr. Stephanopoulos said.
"I suppose she must have taken the question in narrow legalistic fashion," he commented.
Yesterday, Judge Wood acknowledged hiring a baby sitter in March 1986 even though the woman had an expired entry visa. The judge said that she had paid all required taxes and filed all required forms.
"In March 1986, it was lawful to openly employ aliens who were in the country, like my baby sitter, on an expired visa as long as all required taxes and forms were filed," she said. "However, although all my acts were lawful, my baby sitter, like anyone pursuing legalization, was not legally in this country from 1980 until she obtained legal residency in December 1987."
Mr. Stephanopoulos called the new development "unfortunate" and said, "We'll have one [a nominee] picked soon."
Although administration officials had been actively supporting the rumors this week that Judge Wood was to get the nod, they began seeking to dampen that speculation on Thursday night. Around midday yesterday, word began to circulate here that a "problem" had developed with Judge Wood.
The New York Times reported last night that White House officials said they also discovered recently that Judge Wood had briefly trained as a Playboy bunny when she was a student in London during the 1960s. Although she was told that this would not disqualify her, White House officials said they feared that it might become the source of jokes, the Times reported.
Reports circulated here last night that the president's advisers had urged Judge Wood to take her name out of the running because her nomination had become a political impossibility.
BTCHD: Nanny again: Justice candidate withdraws
Judge drops out over her employment of an illegal alien