October 2, 2023

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Business is my step

Charles Kushner, pardoned by Trump, was once one of the most powerful people in N.J.

12 min read

Charles Kushner was once a powerful presence in New Jersey politics. That was before Kushner, a wealthy New Jersey developer, served nearly two years in prison more than a decade ago in a tax fraud case that grew into a bizarre tale involving sex tapes and a prostitute.

Kushner, the father of Trump’s son-in-law, Jared, who is married to Ivanka Trump and is a senior advisor to the president, was granted a full pardon late Wednesday by President Donald Trump.

But in 2002, when The Star-Ledger profiled him, the elder Kushner was a frequent contributor to Democrats’ election campaigns and was about to become chair of the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, a position that would make him even more powerful than before.

What follows is a story that ran in The Star-Ledger in 2002, on the eve of Kushner’s arrival at the authority, and just months before his downfall began.

(Editor’s note: In August of 2004, Kushner pleaded guilty to cheating on his taxes and hiding illegal campaign donations by making them in the names of his business partners. Kushner also acknowledged that he retaliated against a witness in the tax probe – identified by sources as his estranged sister – by hiring a prostitute to seduce her husband and sending a tape of the encounter to his wife. Then staff writer John P. Martin reported on the plea deal.)

Real estate king talks softly but carries a long list of friends

By Ted Sherman, Dec. 22, 2002

Charles Kushner has friends in high places.

His Rolodex is a catalogue of the rich and powerful. Ask him for a list of people who know him well; those who might talk about him, and he slides two pages of familiar names and their phone numbers across a dark, polished granite table.

William J. Clinton is there. So is Hillary Rodham Clinton. Jon Corzine, Frank Lautenberg, Charles Schumer, Cardinal Theodore McCarrick, Thomas H. Kean, Laurence Tisch, Bill Bradley and Rudolph Giuliani all take his calls.

The wealthy, 48-year-old developer, who has leveraged his myriad partnerships and real estate companies into a formidable force, gives millions to politicians and even more to charitable, religious and philanthropic organizations. In the past decade, campaign finance reports show, he has channeled more than $5.5 million to state and national political campaigns and candidates, including a $1 million check he wrote to the Democratic National Committee just this past October.

President Clinton, Vice President Al Gore and Sen. Joseph Lieberman have all paid calls at Kushner’s offices. At the same time, he has also given substantial sums of money to philanthropic enterprises. Kushner has built a religious school of unprecedented scope; mounted a major reconstruction of his Orthodox synagogue, incorporating hand-crafted stained glass panels and stone imported from Israel; been a major benefactor to his law school, to Saint Barnabas Medical Center in Livingston, the Newark Archdiocese and Catholic Charities, and other institutions.

Last year alone his family foundation gave close to $1 million to charitable causes.

Now Kushner, who is by far the largest contributor to Gov. James E. McGreevey, is emerging from relative public obscurity to take on one of the most powerful economic jobs in the northeast — the chairmanship of the bi-state Port Authority of New York and New Jersey. It is a job replete with potential conflicts, given Kushner’s extensive real estate holdings. Plot his properties on a map and the Garden State quickly becomes a Kushner mosaic.

He has said already he will recuse himself from decisions regarding the construction of a high-rise office building above the Port Authority Bus Terminal because he has an equity stake in a New Jersey mall with Vornado Realty Trust, which will develop the project.

To those close to him, Kushner — known to his friends and even those who work for him as Charlie — can be charming and generous beyond any expectation. They say that even though he is soft-spoken and polite, he is a tough negotiator — some say uncompromising — who is his own counsel.

“He doesn’t like to take ‘no’ for an answer,” said one close family friend. “He has a temper and he loses it now and then. He doesn’t think there is a ‘no’ to something that makes sense.”

A schism with his older brother Murray, meanwhile, recently spilled into the open, replete with allegations of fund-raising irregularities and charges that money was improperly diverted from business partners.

The dispute, which could potentially jeopardize his appointment as Port Authority chairman, is now in arbitration.

McGreevey last week, however, said he stood firmly behind Kushner.

“I strongly and unequivocally support him as chairman of the Port Authority,” said the Governor, who brushed off speculation that Kushner had lobbied for the position. “Mr. Kushner is bright, tough and will advocate for New Jersey’s interests,” said McGreevey.

Charles Kushner, a top New Jersey developer, at the Joseph Kushner Hebrew Academy, named for his father.Star-Ledger file photo

A private man who shies away from publicity, Kushner sat down recently for the first extended interview he has given, talking for nearly four hours over two days about his business, his politics, his faith and his charitable donations.

“I am always going to do what I think is right,” he said.

Tall and thin, with salt-and-pepper hair now shading far more toward gray, Kushner does business from a cavernous office on the third floor of the Kushner Companies building in suburban Florham Park; a room that seems large enough to serve as a hangar for a small airplane.


Kushner, who has run the New York Marathon three times, doesn’t make deals on the golf course. He doesn’t play.

“Kids from Elizabeth didn’t play golf,” he explained. “We didn’t know from golf sticks.”

He oversees a fast-growing real estate empire that stretches across the state and abroad. There are 24,000 apartment units, a bank, several shopping centers, a hotel, commercial office buildings, warehouses, retail strips and industrial space.

The walls of his office are filled with large, black-and-white portraits of his wife Seryl and their four children, and family snapshots, including his first grandchild.

A plaque on one wall, near a meticulously clean desk, shows the first dollar he ever made from a Nathan’s fast food franchise.

“It’s the only dollar I made out of there,” he said dryly of the failed hot dog venture. “It’s a reminder. Stick to what you know.”

What he knows is real estate. Garden apartments, townhouses, Newark office buildings, the historic Puck building in New York’s SoHo, adult communities and the Monmouth Mall.

Last week, Kushner was one of three developers selected in a state-sponsored makeover of Asbury Park, which involves a major redevelopment of the city’s tired waterfront.

A son of Holocaust survivors, Kushner grew up in an Orthodox Jewish neighborhood in Elizabeth, where his father Joseph worked as a carpenter and later as a builder who acquired and managed small properties.

“He was always on the phone, talking to contractors,” recalled Kushner.

While his father was not observant, Charlie Kushner was enrolled in the Jewish Educational Center, a yeshiva school. He played high school basketball, although his old coach, Cordell “Rap” Reinhardt, said he couldn’t find the net.

“He was not a gifted, natural player,” Reinhardt said politely. “But he made himself probably the best defensive player that I ever coached. He was tenacious.”

Wearing the blue-and-gold colors of the JEC Chargers through three years of varsity ball, Reinhardt said the 6-foot Kushner twice held the state’s leading scorer, who averaged 35 points a game, to fewer than 19 points.


A 1976 graduate of New York University, Kushner earned an MBA and law degree, and practiced law for four years. Former law partner Alan Hammer, who worked with him and now does work for him, said Kushner focused on real estate.

“Investments, transactional acquisitions. The stuff I do for him now,” he said. “He was always very aggressive.”

Hammer remembered that just days before Kushner left the firm, he got rid of an associate who was doing real estate work there. “I can’t say he fired him, or ‘encouraged’ him to quit, but he did it the day before he was leaving, leaving me with a ton of extra work, Hammer complained. “I asked why. He told me, ‘This guy isn’t good enough to work for you.’”

Kushner opened a real estate business with his father and his wife’s brother, setting up shop in a rented office on Route 10 in East Hanover. The business built itself mostly on acquisitions of existing properties, making money by renovating or improving the structures to generate higher rents.

It was, and continues to be, a buy-and-hold business. The purchases would be financed through partnerships and cash investments from friends and associates, as opposed to so-called “funny money” – high-risk debt with a limited lifespan that requires quick refinancing or the sale of the property to get the money out for investors.

“We’re not flippers,” said a company executive. “We keep and maintain what we have.”

The structure of Kushner’s varied businesses and its Byzantine array of partnerships also turned out to be an efficient political fund-raising mechanism known as “bundling” that Kushner took to new levels, allowing him to use his real estate empire to fuel a political agenda on high octane.

Bundling is a common fund-raising tactic involving the solicitation of individual contributions, which until this most recent campaign cycle were limited to $2,000 per candidate in federal campaigns and $2,200 in state campaigns. The appeal of bundling is that by combining legal contributions from members or employees into so-called “bundles” of cash, unions, corporations and advocacy groups are able to sidestep laws intended to limit their financial clout.

It’s legal, so long as contributors are not coerced to give or reimbursed for their donations.


Until 1992, Kushner made few political donations.

“Politicians used to call, but I was very skeptical of a lot of them,” he said. Frank Lautenberg, beginning a run for a third Senate term in 1994, convinced him to get behind his campaign and Kushner responded with a flood of checks from his family, his kids, his partners and employees, including $15,000 from his wife, all four children, his mother and brother.

Lautenberg, who through his recent election to the Senate has received $231,000 from Kushner and Kushner partnerships, said “when Charlie supports people, he genuinely believes they are the right people.” But he added, “Charlie wasn’t out to buy anything from me. He never asked anything of me that had me scratching my head.”

Kushner said the Lautenberg race “changed my whole perspective of what my responsibility is.” He rejects any suggestion of personal benefit or influence.

“I’m proud of it. I’m proud of it,” he said. “I’m blessed that were fortunate to be able to do it.”

Kushner was the biggest fundraiser for McGreevey.Star-Ledger file photo

His partners are all associates in the political giving. Several who were questioned said they have always been asked beforehand about making donations and acquiesced with “whatever Charlie decided.” His support depends on a face-to-face meeting, like the one Kushner had with McGreevey in 1997.

“He was a guy who talked his way into getting an appointment and I said, Boy, Im going to kill a half hour with this guy because he is going nowhere. He wanted to run against Gov. (Christie) Whit man,” Kushner remembered. “But he impressed me and I said I was going to support him. I said you’re going to get your ass kicked, but Im happy to support you.”

Potential governors, senators, presidents, even would-be mayors, they must all come for an audience.

Cory Booker, who ran unsuccessfully against Newark Mayor Sharpe James, had such a meeting. Kushner and his partners put $50,000 into Bookers campaign, even though Kushner owned several buildings in Newark and could suffer some retribution from the city administration.

“He literally called all his business partners in the room and said, Were about to make a very bad business decision, but I want this to be a consensus. This is not just a political campaign. It’s a righteous fight.”

Booker said Kushner knew there might be consequences of any support. “He said, It makes re ally bad business sense. He’s an incumbent mayor. Then he turned to me and said, You’re probably going to lose, but this is the right fight. If you’re doing this, we’re going to support you.”

Booker did lose and the mayor later threatened to use his power as a state senator to block Kushners appointment to the Port Authority, but later relented.


For all the attention on his political giving, Kushners private philanthropy has been far more substantial.

Less than a mile from his office stands the Joseph Kushner Hebrew Academy, a sprawling ye shiva named for his father that Kushner pushed to build. In a visit to the school, Kushner stops frequently to greet individual students by name. No one is quite sure how many classrooms are in the huge building, but they think its 50 or more.

Pausing briefly at a large, cutaway scale model on display in a lobby, Kushner points out the labs, libraries, two gymnasiums, the religious study rooms and the 600-seat auditorium where Yitzhak Perlman has performed. It was a project that proved to be a hard sell, even to parents, school trustees and contributors — who were dubious over its enormous scope. But Kushner said he was convinced he was right, and had the model built at a cost of $15,000.

“I remember, because I had a hard time spending the money,” he recalled. “But I had it built because they just couldn’t see what I saw.” His charitable support extends beyond his close-knit Orthodox community.

Former Newark Archbishop Theodore McCarrick, now cardinal in Washington, D.C., said Kushner was very helpful to the archdiocese. (Editor’s note: Ex-Cardinal McCarrick’s own downfall began in 2018 amid accusations of sexual abuse, detailed in a Vatican report released in November).

“He’s been very generous,” said the cardinal. “He became helpful in things we were trying to do in Catholic Charities and health care.”

The Joseph Kushner Hebrew Academy, a sprawling yeshiva that Kushner pushed to build.Star-Ledger file photo

Kushner’s critics say the money the developer spreads around — whether to political campaigns or charitable causes — buys access in high places. His lengthy, assiduous cultivation of key politicians, seasoned by money and favors, they say, gives him an edge.

They cite the selection of Kushner as the developer in As bury Park and another urban revitalization project in Perth Amboy as blatant examples of how the company’s influence works. Kushner is also negotiating to be come a venture partner with Flor ida developer EnCap Golf Holdings, which is planning to build a golf course and development atop the former landfill operated by the Hackensack Meadowlands Development Commission — a project involving public funds. His biggest critic, though, re mains his older brother Murray.

Earlier this year, Murray Kushner — who has his own real estate development business — filed suit over the distribution of partnership earnings in some of the projects he has participated in with his brother.


It’s been a case that has deeply split the four Kushner siblings — with Murray and his sister Esther on one side, and Charles and his older sister Linda on the other. Family friends said it was a dispute brewing for years, fueled by jealousy and anger, and perceptions that Charles had been the favored son.

Neither brother speaks to the other now and the civil complaint brought by Murray was quietly sealed at the agreement of both sides, in hopes of an arbitrated settlement. A second lawsuit, though, was filed last month by a former accounting manager at the Kushner Companies, reiterating the allegations.

The case was brought by Robert Yontef, who said he had originally brought his concerns to Murray. Yontef charged that Charles Kushner had misappropriated funds from a number of Kushner companies to cover personal expenses, overcharged those entities for management services, and diverted funds from his partners.

He also alleged that some of that money was used by Charles Kushner to make millions of dollars in political contributions.

The timing of both suits suggests they were aimed at blocking Kushners appointment to the Port Authority, administration officials said. Murray Kushner did not return calls to his home or cell phone. His younger brother says little about the case.

“The situation with my brother is an unfortunate family dispute. Honestly, it’s a personal confidential matter Im not comfortable talking about,” Kushner said. “Its painful for everyone involved.”

Kushner still expects to be named chairman of the Port Authority by April. The appointment, once considered imminent, is un likely to occur until the current chairman, former state Sen. Jack Sinagra, is confirmed as a New Jersey Highway Authority commissioner.

As a new commissioner, Kushner has been kicking the tires, said Port Authority Deputy Executive Director Michael DeCotiis.

He climbed to the top of the George Washington Bridge and has walked the now abandoned PATH railway tunnel from the Ground Zero site to Jersey City.

Business associates, though, are still scratching their heads over why he is taking the public post.

“He was forewarned by anyone that knew him,” said a real estate broker who is close to Kushner and felt the high-profile position would be at odds with Kushner’s quest for privacy and the operation of his business.

“His ego, or dedication, is such that he sees a larger role for himself in the world,” he said.

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