Kushner: “I don’t feel embittered” about prison time

New York /
Nov.November 07, 2007 10:41 AM

Chairman of Kushner Companies. Kushner founded the Florham Park, N.J.-based real estate organization in January 1985. The company’s assets include approximately 25,000 apartment units and nearly 5 million square feet of office, industrial and retail space. The company completed a $2 billion multifamily sale in New Jersey last month — the state’s largest ever multifamily real estate transaction.

Kushner was sentenced to two years in federal prison in Montgomery, Ala., after pleading guilty to 18 felony counts of filing false tax returns, making illegal campaign donations and one count of retaliating against a witness. Kushner was angry at his sister’s husband for cooperating with the federal government in its investigation of him, so he hired a prostitute to seduce his brother-in-law, videotaped the liaison and sent the tape to his sister. Kushner was released within a year, on March 31, 2006.

What is your full name?

Charles Kushner.

You don’t have a middle name?

My parents were poor immigrants when they came to this country. My mom didn’t really speak English, so when the nurse, who happened to be African-American, asked what my name was going to be, my mother answered with a Yiddish name, Chanan. I was named after her brother, who was killed in the Holocaust. The nurse said they don’t name children like that in America. The nurse named me Charles. Chanan is the Hebrew name I kept.

What is your birth date?

May 16, 1954.

Where did you grow up?

Elizabeth, N.J.

Where do you live?

We have four residences. My wife [Seryl] and I spend a couple of nights a week at our apartment on Fifth Avenue at 67th Street and two nights a week in Livingston, N.J., where we have lived for 26 years. We spend summers on the beach in the Jersey Shore in Elberon, N.J., and we have a place in Bal Harbor, Fla., where we go occasionally in the winter.

Which home do you like best?

I love the Jersey Shore. It’s the only place I can really go that I feel I have peace and serenity.

Did you start your company with the chairman title?

In ’85 I was the chairman, I was the manager, I was the dishwasher. I started the business with one secretary. [Until last month’s sale of the Kushner Companies portfolio, there were approximately 800 employees.]

Then you had to step down.

Yes, when I went to jail I stepped down, until August ’06.

What’s your favorite restaurant?

We eat at a lot of fancy restaurants, but what I like the most is Kosher Delight on Broadway, where you can get a good meal for under $10 and within 10 minutes.

What was the first job you ever had?

I walked the construction sites with my father at like 10 years old, and then I assumed different responsibilities within the context of what my father’s work was [Kushner’s father was an independent builder]. It ranged from being on job sites to attending business meetings.

What is your greatest professional achievement?

Building the Joseph Kushner Hebrew Academy in Livingston [a Modern Orthodox yeshiva day school].

What was the biggest obstacle on your path to success?

In the late ’80s and early ’90s, people called our industry in a recession, but in truth, it was a depression. It was a great obstacle trying to get debt or refinance debt.

What was your greatest obstacle personally?

Going to jail and having to be apart from my wife and children.

What did being in jail do to you?

It gave me an opportunity to learn a lot about myself. I learned a lot about other people. I learned a lot about different areas I’ve always had an interest to learn about, whether it be Jewish history or derivative financing.

I didn’t waste my time in jail. I was able to read the Wall Street Journal cover to cover every day.

What did you learn about other people?

That there are just so many people that are stripped of their means, that don’t have families, that don’t have ways to make a living. When they go to prison, they lose their hope of having a life.

I tried to help the young kids write their resumes. I used to give mock interviews and try to give them some direction.

It sounds like prison wasn’t so bad.

I’m an adaptable person, so living in a bunk bed was not a great sacrifice; living out of a locker was not a great sacrifice; having one pair of pants was not a sacrifice. The biggest hardship that I experienced was being separated from my wife and children and my grandchildren. They’d visit me once a week.

Was there any food you missed while you were in the joint?

Prison food is the equivalent of dog food, particularly if you’re Kosher. I think I lived most of the year eating peanut butter and sardines.

What did you take away from your prison experience? Obviously you’re not wearing one pair of pants now.

I still wear one pair of pants. As a matter of fact, when I came back from prison and I opened my closet and saw the amount of clothes I had, I said, “Seryl, I can’t deal with it.” It was never important to me, and it’s still not. I would buy any of these buildings — I paid $1.8 billion for 666 [Fifth Avenue, in 2006] — but I won’t shop in the stores there because it’s too expensive.

Did you find yourself abandoned by people you didn’t expect to do so, or find people who were able to show up for you whom you didn’t think would?

When the guards delivered mail, they made fun of me that I should have gotten my own P.O. box number because I used to get [two-thirds of the mail coming into the barracks]. I got letters from people all over, wishing me well, giving support. One liberty I had in prison is that those walls kept me in but also kept out people. I only wanted to see my family and three, four, five of my closest friends. It’s almost a liberty I don’t have now. I have to see a lot of people because I don’t want to insult them, or I don’t want to be disrespectful.

People were incredibly supportive. I always thought I knew what friendship was. It further emphasized the definition of friendship.

I don’t feel embittered by my experience.

Are you in contact with any of the inmates?

I’m not allowed to because I’m on probation until August ’08. [At that time], I know I will be.

Have you had any resolution with your sister and her husband?

I mean, it’s a family tragedy what happened. I believe that God and my parents in heaven forgive me for what I did, which was wrong. I don’t believe God and my parents will ever forgive my brother and sister for instigating a criminal investigation and being cheerleaders for the government and putting their brother in jail because of jealousy, hatred and spite. On my worst day in prison, I wouldn’t trade places with my brother and sister, and yet I know what I did was wrong.

If you had to start all over again, what would you do differently?

I don’t think I would change much. I probably would have heeded my father’s advice not to take my brother in as a business partner [his brother Murray was a passive partner in many properties that were purchased], which my father always urged me to do.

What quality do you think you could improve in yourself?

I think I could be more patient with people who can’t accomplish goals I think they can or within the time frame I think that they can.

Do you read books?

I’m always reading a book. Now I’m reading “East of Eden” by John Steinbeck, which is written beautifully.

I like your reading glasses.
They’re from Costco. My wife gets about six of them for like $20.

What kind of watch are you wearing?

These are the [kind of] watches they sell in prison. The one I wore when I was in there busted, so I bought another one when I got out. It cost $30. I am also using the wallet I bought in prison. I traded cans of mackerel for it. [His initials were engraved on the wallet in prison.]

What do you read every day?

Every day I read the Wall Street Journal, the New York Times, the New York Post and the Newark Star-Ledger.

In the Post, I generally skip the tabloid stuff, and I just read the business and real estate. I’m not a Page Six reader, except to make sure nobody in my family is in there.

Do you read the New York Observer [the publication his son, Jared, owns] every week?

I read it from back to front. I don’t spend too much time on the culture. I like the politics, and I love the real estate.

Has your son ever given you bad press?

No. Not bad nor positive.

What word would you use to describe yourself?

Ambitious — I don’t know.

What’s your worst vice?

Answering my cell phone in inappropriate places, like in restaurants. I’m always getting slapped under the table by my wife for it.

What do you think of your record deal last year?

We still hold the record for the most money paid for a single asset [666 Fifth Avenue]. Every day I want to see somebody break that record. I’d rather be the guy that loses that contest, not who wins it.

Interview by Lauren Elkies

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