The Real Deal New York

Charlie Kushner's redemption

After a stint in prison and years in the shadows, the developer is regaining his stature thanks to his son’s meteoric rise to the White House
By Katherine Clarke | February 01, 2017 12:03PM

Charlie Kushner (Illustration by Edward Kinsella)

When real estate broker David Falk’s father died in the fall of 2013, he and his family sat shiva at his Westchester home for several days.

Later that week, when Falk and his family decamped to his sister’s house in Connecticut to continue the Jewish mourning ritual, Falk felt relieved that his turn to host was over.

“I was so glad I wouldn’t know anyone there, because I was so tired,” he recalled.

But while sitting in his sister’s living room, Falk spotted someone he knew approaching the house. Walking toward the front door was Charles Kushner TRData LogoTINY along with his wife, Seryl, and his eldest son, Jared. Charlie’s presence shocked Falk, who until then had done just a handful of deals with the developer and investor.

“I’ll never forget it,” said Falk, the president of Newmark Grubb Knight Frank’s New York tri-state region, who noted that Charlie stayed and talked for two hours, sharing how he had lost his own father.

“There were so many people who I was a lot closer to that did not do that,” Falk said. “I knew, looking in their eyes, that they meant it.”

For those who know Charlie Kushner, such stories do not come as a surprise. Friends described the 62-year-old as “over-the-top generous” and a “rock.”

But there is another, darker side to Charlie, who famously served 14 months in federal prison for tax evasion and witness tampering in a salacious case in which he hired a prostitute to entrap his brother-in-law.

Now, the onetime development titan — whose fall from grace was closely documented in New York’s tabloids — is back and regaining his stature in New York real estate circles.

In January, Jared stepped down as CEO of the family real estate business, Kushner Companies — a role he assumed after his father was released from prison. Then last month, the younger Kushner relocated to Washington, D.C., to serve as senior adviser to Donald Trump, his father-in-law and the country’s controversial new president.

Jared’s unlikely meteoric rise to the White House is not only a source of immense pride for Charlie, it’s also opened up a new phase for his own business and social redemption.

While sources say the elder Kushner played a crucial behind-the-scenes role at Kushner Companies even when Jared was at the helm, he remained largely in the shadows.

But that’s recently started to change. Charlie, sources say, is now showing up at more meetings with potential partners and keeping daily tabs on the company’s biggest development projects.

And though he was informally blacklisted by many lenders in the wake of his conviction, sources say lenders will likely soon be lining up at his feet, if they’re not already. That’s not to mention the favors from industry friends and others that are likely to be called in.

In addition, he has his son’s influential ear in the White House, is sitting on one of the highest-profile assets in the city at 666 Fifth Avenue and has several major New York projects and investments in the works.

Asher Abehsera — founder and CEO of the Brooklyn-based development firm LIVWRK — noted that Charlie is regaining his foothold in NYC real estate.

“Charlie is back at the table,” said Abehsera, whose firm is partnering with Kushner Companies on the Dumbo Heights tech hub.

Newfound power

Last month, Charlie, Seryl and their younger son, Josh, watched from the front row as President Trump and Vice President Mike Pence swore in Jared and others as senior White House aides. That was actually one row in front of Eric Trump, the president’s own son.

The new level of access to the most powerful decision makers in the country — and world for that matter — is not going unnoticed. This new and unprecedented position is already upping Charlie’s business and social standing.

Manhattan developer Steve Witkoff, a Kushner family friend, said when he realized he was short on credentials for Trump’s inaugural Liberty Ball last month, he had only one solution — to call Charlie.

Charlie seems to be basking in this third act.

For starters, he’s in good physical shape. He is said to run six miles in Central Park most mornings before heading into work, sometimes with industry friends like Sandeep Mathrani, the CEO of General Growth Properties. But he also appears to be mentally ready to dive back into company business in force.

He reportedly attended a dinner last month at the Waldorf Astoria Hotel with Jared and Anbang Insurance Group Chairman Wu Xiaohui to hammer out a possible joint-venture partnership at 666 Fifth Avenue. And he’s said to be taking an active role in the company’s plans for a mixed-use building at Dumbo’s 85 Jay Street, a site with 1.1 million square feet of development rights that the firm paid $345 million for in December.

He was seen mingling with real estate industry power players in December at Fried Frank’s see-and-be-seen holiday party. Charlie also recently purchased another personal property in Manhattan, a spread comprising three condominium units at 212 Fifth Avenue, for more than $12 million, sources said.

Alan Hammer, a onetime attorney for Charlie, was recently quoted by Bloomberg saying that his friend is “working harder than he’s worked in a long time.”

Witkoff noted that Charlie is beaming over his 36-year-old son’s success.

Charlie Kushner surrounded by the media in 2004

“You know what I told [Jared], Steve? I said, ‘I’m really going to miss you, but promise me you’ll do great things for the country,’” Witkoff recalled Charlie telling him in a recent conversation.

Separating Jared and his father is not an easy thing to do. The two are said to be incredibly close. A spokesman for Kushner Companies said the firm has “taken significant steps to address potential conflicts.”

Still, Jared, who has staunchly defended his father, has made his family loyalty abundantly clear when it comes to both the Trumps, including his wife, Ivanka, and his own parents.

During Trump’s White House transition, the younger Kushner successfully lobbied to push out New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, who as the state’s U.S. attorney years earlier prosecuted Charlie.

So Jared’s ascent — which, ironically, was kicked off by Charlie’s downfall — comes with more than a tinge of poetic justice.

Reputational risk

It wasn’t that long ago that Charlie’s conviction became something of a scarlet letter for Kushner Companies when it came to securing real estate loans, according to multiple sources.

Sources said many of the firm’s previous lenders would no longer do business with the firm, since lending to a felon is against most company policies. (A spokesperson for Kushner Companies denied that, however).

While Charlie was not officially running the company, many believed he still controlled it.

Grooming Jared as CEO and keeping Charlie behind the scenes was clearly a strategic move that help provide cover to potential partners.

“Charlie was always very active, but just not the signatory,” said one person with knowledge of the company’s decision-making. “It was quite deliberate. They didn’t want to run the reputational risk, so they had Jared be the person who was front and center. He was kept very purposefully in the background.”

Some argued that Charlie’s past should not be a deterrent to doing business with a solid client.

Michael Levine, a director at New York Community Bank and a member of its residential real estate committee, argued to fellow board members that it was worth waiving bank policy when Kushner Companies applied for a commercial mortgage for a Manhattan multifamily building.

“That first loan came with a major discussion,” said Levine, whose Norse Realty Group is based in Great Neck, Long Island. “There’s no answer for what he did. I never asked him why, so there should have been a discussion. But I told the board, ‘The guy’s a consummate gentleman, and he will never hurt us. Look at this as an opportunity.’”

The loan was approved, and the publicly traded bank has since lent the company hundreds of millions of dollars.

“There are banks that have stayed away because of Charlie’s legal difficulties,” said a onetime partner of Kushner Companies. “The more institutional a bank or institution is, the more they have a duty to themselves, their shareholders and their regulators to be conservative about who they do business with. A prior felony conviction, no matter how old, makes some borrowers unbankable at some institutions.”

Nonetheless, Kushner Companies hasn’t been short on partners.

With Jared at the helm, the firm did business with major players. Since 2007, it’s completed $14 billion in transactions with the likes of Deutsche Bank, CIM Group, SL Green Realty, Invesco and OakTree Capital, to name a few. And Jared is credited with transforming the once New Jersey-centric firm into a major NYC player with trophy assets and major developments.

Abehsera said he never hesitated to partner with Kushner Companies.

“Should you punish someone forever for what they did?” he said. “There’s so much bullshit in this business. It is really rewarding to work with someone who knows how to navigate all of it and who has done it before. [Charlie is] one of the most connected guys in the business. His Rolodex is packed because his deal-making goes back three decades.”

For those who assume Charlie Kushner would want to hide from his past, think again.

He brought two fellow white-collar felons onto the Kushner Company payroll — Avram Lebor and Richard Goettlich, who he met while doing time.

Lebor was doing a seven-year stint for collecting $9 million in advance fees for loans that never materialized. Goettlich, meanwhile, served a decade for securities fraud, tax evasion and money laundering and was ordered to pay $271 million in fines and refunds to thousands of investors after getting caught running a Ponzi scheme centered around office equipment leases.

Lebor was released from prison in 2009 and joined Kushner Companies as director of acquisitions that same year. Goettlich was released in 2008 and joined Kushner Companies three years later as a leasing consultant.

A source close to Kushner Companies said Charlie “is extremely protective” of both men.

And Charlie is nothing if not strategic.

Despite his increased visibility lately, the elder Kushner is still staying behind the scenes — at least when it comes to his official position at the company.

The company spokesperson told TRD that Laurent Morali, who was tapped as the president of Kushner Companies last June, will take over as head of the firm.

Charlie Kushner will be advising Morali just as he advised his son, the spokesperson said.

But sources say Charlie’s role in the company cannot be overstated and note that with Jared gone his involvement is already on the rise.

“He’s still going to be the primary interface for big-time real estate developers, specifically in New York,” said friend Matthew Galligan, president of CIT Real Estate Finance, who’s worked with the firm in the past.

“If Steve Ross from Vornado wants to talk to somebody, he’s calling Charlie,” Galligan said. “As far as the meat and potatoes, I don’t see him sitting through a meeting on property management for 8,000 apartments — he’ll just want a briefing afterwards.”

Abehsera agreed: “Charlie will be the sort of global strategic mind and vision for what he wants his family’s business to be and how it will grow. Laurent will be the boots on the ground to help execute those visions.”

Some took that even further: “The family is writing the checks,” said one person who’s doing business with the company. “Laurent, though I assume he is well compensated, works for the family at the end of the day.”

The Glory Days

Until his world exploded in scandal in 2005, Charlie Kushner — the son of Holocaust survivors — was at the top of his game.

He had transformed a construction business started by his father into a private real estate empire with more than 25,000 apartments, millions of square feet of commercial and industrial space and thousands of acres of developable land, mostly in New Jersey. 

But, more than that, he was a community pillar, a major Democratic political donor (who’s backed Hillary Clinton in the past) and a force in the world of Jewish philanthropy.

President Donald Trump and Jared Kushner after Jared was sworn in as a senior adviser in the White House last month

He built two Modern Orthodox schools in Livingston named after his parents: the Joseph Kushner Hebrew Academy and the Rae Kushner Yeshiva High School.

He even once unsuccessfully competed with developer Bruce Ratner to purchase the New York Nets.

He also was former New Jersey governor James McGreevey’s biggest fundraiser, doling out more than $1.5 million to the politician and his campaign committees, according to news reports. In 2003, McGreevey nominated Charlie as chairman of the Port Authority of New York & New Jersey, but the developer dropped out of the race when allegations of illegal campaign donations emerged.

At the time, Charlie called the allegations “political nonsense and bickering generated by local partisan politics.”

But things soon started going downhill.

McGreevey famously resigned from office in 2004 amid revelations that he had cheated on his wife and was having a homosexual relationship with Golan Cipel, an Israeli national who he controversially named as the state’s homeland security adviser and whose visa Charlie had sponsored.

And Charlie’s high-flying ways also came to a screeching halt.

The much-repeated story of his downfall goes like this. In 2004, he was charged with tax evasion, and both his brother and sister agreed to testify against him.

To retaliate against his sister, he hired a prostitute to seduce her husband, videotaped the sex and then sent his sister the tape.

According to a 2004 court document, an FBI investigator wrote that Charlie had personally recruited the prostitute, offering her between $7,000 and $10,000.

Then he and his wife’s brother watched the tape in the company’s Florham Park office, covering the conference room’s glass walls with newspapers.

While politicians once lined up to kiss his ring, they were now shuddering when their names were mentioned in the same sentence with his.

Those who knew Charlie were familiar with this darker side. A bulldog negotiator, he was prone to angry outbursts and had been known to viciously reprimand employees, sources said — but few suspected he was capable of the type of sordid and premeditated scheme.

It seemed like a case of Jekyll and Hyde.

“Those of us who knew Charlie and the family pretty well could never rationalize what had happened,” said Arthur Mirante, a principal at the commercial brokerage Avison Young. “To me, it was an aberration.”

Norse Realty’s Levine echoed that sentiment: “It’s like he went insane.”

Charlie declined to be interviewed for this story, but in a November 2007 interview with TRD he said he believes he’ll be forgiven.

“I believe that God and my parents in heaven forgive me for what I did, which was wrong,” he said. “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.”

Good Charlie, Bad Charlie

A few years ago, real estate mogul Stanley Chera hosted a charity fundraiser at his waterfront home in Deal, N.J., the tiny Jersey Shore beach enclave that’s become a magnet for Syrian Jewish real estate players.

One guest, a mortgage broker who scored a last-minute invite and spoke on the condition of anonymity, recalled how after a few drinks Chera asked donors to announce how much they would shell out to the charity, which was educating young people about the dangers of drunk driving.

One by one, the guests announced the size of their checks. “Five thousand,” one person said. “Ten!” yelled another.

Then it came to Charlie. “I’ll do a hundred,” he exclaimed, according to the broker, who until that night didn’t know Charlie. “I was like, ‘Who is this guy?’” the source recalled.

Such stories of Charlie’s generosity are in great supply.

In the late 1990s, when he was just 19, Adam Altman ran into Charlie at a Shabbat lunch hosted by some friends in Colorado. After the encounter, the Orthodox mogul called to offer him a summer internship, taking him under his wing and teaching him the real estate ropes.

Fast-forward to a few years ago when Altman, a founding partner of New Jersey-based KABR Real Estate, turned 40. He arrived at his Woodbury, Long Island, home to find 40 pints of artisanal kosher ice cream sitting on the doorstep, courtesy of Charlie.

“I didn’t come from a wealthy family or even a real estate family, but he gave me a shot and was willing to teach me,” said Altman, who is now co-developing Trump Bay Street, a Jersey City apartment complex with Kushner Companies. “He’d give you the shirt off his back.”

Another former associate told TRD that Charlie had offered up a blank check after the death of a parent. “How much money do you need?” he recalled him asking.

Rabbi Shmully Hecht, who heads Shabtai, Yale University’s less secretive Jewish answer to its Skull and Bones society, said he calls Charlie any time he hears of a Jewish family in need. In some cases, Charlie has been anonymously supporting financially struggling families for years, Hecht said.

“We’re not talking about institutions or big nonprofits. I’m talking about people who are poor and in desperate need,” Hecht said. “I’ve seen Charlie cry when we talk about what some of these families are going through. He’s never wanted any recognition for that.”

Charlie is also on the board of a rehabilitation program for young inmates on Rikers Island called Getting Out and Staying Out, and for a year he went to Rikers every week to counsel young men.

“He came and sat there in his suit in a little cubby at Rikers, asking these guys the big question — what do you want to do with the rest of your life?” said Mark Goldsmith, a retired cosmetics executive who runs the program.

But squaring Charlie’s two sides has long been the challenge.

“It is difficult for me to reconcile the generous man with the revengeful, hateful man,” said the judge at his 2005 sentencing, according to the New York Times.

When he was being sentenced, the judge reportedly received 700 letters attesting to all of Charlie’s charity work.

Theories abound about what drives Charlie’s philanthropic side.

Some have attributed it to a thirst for influence and power; others say it’s his faith.

Sources say Charlie believes in “tzedakah,” the Hebrew word for giving a large portion of one’s wealth to the poor and the common good. In 2014, he and Seryl donated $18 million to Shaare Zedek Medical Center, a hospital in Jerusalem.

Some, however, say his giving is a form of atonement — a sort of penance for his misdeeds.

“It’s like evening the scales,” said one person with knowledge of his charity. “He thinks it’s OK that he did this if he did that.”

The ultimate redemption

Last August, Charlie and Seryl Kushner hosted an informal fundraiser for Trump at their $6.7 million Mediterranean-style home in Long Branch, on the Jersey Shore.

The invitation was reportedly adorned with Trump’s signature slogan: “Make America Great Again!”

While it’s unclear what the longtime Democrat thinks of Trump’s policies, he did donate $100,000 to a Trump super PAC. And a spokesperson for Charlie described President Trump as a “close friend.” The two also share three grandchildren.

That friendship — which is no doubt influenced by the speed-dial relationship he has with Jared — could pay dividends in some very consequential ways.

As he left office last month, President Barack Obama announced his list of presidential pardons, which included hotel and nightclub impresario Ian Schrager, who served 20 months in the same Alabama penitentiary as Charlie for tax evasion.

The recent spate of pardons, particularly Schrager’s, has fanned some speculation that Trump could pardon Charlie.

Expunging the developer’s felony would provide a number of tangible benefits, including allowing him to bid on government projects and lifting certain travel restrictions. Goldsmith told TRD he wrote a letter for Charlie in 2013 when the developer wanted to vacation in Canada, which has strict rules about admitting U.S. felons.

But Trump could change Charlie’s status with the stroke of a pen.

“It’s like a throwback to the kings of Europe,” said Robert Begleiter, the former chief of the Civil Division of the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Eastern District of New York. “[A president can] pardon someone for their birthday.”

Some said that if Trump does pardon Charlie, it would not be wise to do so by executive order. Instead, he should have Charlie submit a formal request to the Justice Department, which then makes a recommendation to the White House.

“If Mr. Kushner is smart and the Trump administration is smart, there’s a way to handle it that would give the president some cover,” said Washington D.C.-based criminal defense attorney Sam Morison. “It’s inevitable that the whole thing will raise some eyebrows — you can’t avoid that. But if you go through the trouble of filling out the paperwork, make him stand in line like everyone else; at least everyone gets to vent their spleen.”

But either way, the Kushners’ deals are likely to face increased scrutiny given the family’s ties to the president. Kushner family friend Bobby Taubman of Taubman Centers, a regional mall owner, said “Charlie and the family are going to be under watch.”

“People are going to be looking at what they’re doing closely,” Taubman said. “That has advantages, and it has disadvantages.”