By the late nineties, the families barely spoke, and the conflict worked its way into the business and their charity work. Charlie threatened to fire one of his employees when his wife offered to help Lee, who had been diagnosed with multiple sclerosis, promote an MS benefit gala. Friends and members of the synagogue were forced to take sides.
In the spring of 2000, over Passover at the Fontainebleau in Miami Beach, the Kushners tried to reconcile. But as they chatted in chaises longues, their dispute boiled over. Charlie, still angry over the Berkshire deal, told Murray they shouldn’t do business anymore.
“If we can’t be partners, we can’t be brothers,” Murray said.
Lee defended her husband, drawing Charlie’s rage. Charlie complained that they never appreciated all he had done for the Kushner name.
“You think your son got into Penn?” Charlie said, glowering at Lee. “I got him in.”
Murray had to restrain Lee from leaping out of his lap. “We’re out of here,” Lee snapped.
Murray and Lee refused to show up to Passover the following year when Charlie and his sisters, Esther and Linda, held the annual family Seder again at the Fontainebleau. Amazingly, it was even worse. Charlie was furious that Esther took Murray’s side in the feud (later Charlie learned she had cooperated with the FBI’s investigation). In front of 40 guests in a private dining room, Charlie started berating Esther and her husband, Billy Schulder, one of Charlie’s former business partners. Charlie hated Billy too. He never forgave Billy after he had an office romance with another employee years earlier. Charlie exploded when he thought Billy and his son Jacob were snickering during the Seder.
“You’re so pious,” Charlie fumed. “Go on, Billy, and tell your kids how pious you are.”
Everyone knew Charlie was talking about Billy’s affair. “Don’t say any more,” Esther pleaded. Billy and Jacob shouted back.
“You’re a fucking putz!” Charlie yelled. “How can you be so rude?”
“They’re not worth yelling about,” Jared said. Esther and her daughter Jessie stormed out. The family split was final.
A few months later, Murray sued Charlie, claiming that Charlie owed him money from their real-estate partnerships (the suit was settled in arbitration and sealed). The timing, on the eve of Jim McGreevey’s election, couldn’t have been worse. Then, in November 2002, Bob Yontef, a Kushner Companies bookkeeper, filed a second lawsuit raising allegations about Charlie’s political contributions. The following February, Yontef filed a third lawsuit in federal court, a couple of months before McGreevey was going to make good on his campaign promise and promote Charlie to chair the Port Authority. The suits caught the attention of Christopher J. Christie, the U.S. Attorney for New Jersey and a Republican with political ambitions of his own (Christie is currently running for governor). He launched an investigation into Yontef’s allegations.
Charlie blamed Murray and Esther for bringing on the investigation. He told synagogue members that Murray was a moser, an informant. Amid the mounting political pressure, Charlie withdrew his bid to chair the Port Authority. He was left with a deep sense of victimization and betrayal. And as the investigation progressed, Charlie’s internal wounds festered.
Then commenced the noir portion of the Charlie Kushner story. (This account is based on court documents and interviews with several people with knowledge of the plot.) In the summer of 2003, shortly after Jared’s Harvard graduation, Charlie called Jimmy O’Toole to his office for a series of meetings. Jimmy was an Irish Catholic cop on the edge of retirement. Knowing this, Charlie broached the idea of private security work. Jimmy woke up every morning at 3 a.m. to exercise. He had a 28-inch waist and could do 50 chin-ups in a row. Charlie and Jimmy started meeting on eight-mile runs on Sunday mornings. Jimmy knew the Kushner brothers hated each other. Once, when he and Charlie jogged past Murray, Murray made a point to say hello to Jimmy and ignore Charlie.
One day, Charlie called Jimmy to the balcony of his Florham Park office overlooking Columbia Turnpike. “Do you know Billy Schulder?” Charlie asked. Jimmy nodded.
“He’s been fucking around on my sister forever.”
Charlie had long disliked Schulder. Though Schulder wasn’t directly involved in Murray’s lawsuit, he worked for him. And Esther had taken Murray’s side in the feud. A prostitute and a tape, in Charlie’s increasingly disconnected logic, would bring a measure of revenge, teach them all a lesson.
Jimmy was silent. “I’ll look into it,” he said before leaving. From his cell phone, he called his brother Tommy, a private investigator in Utica.
“What do you think, bro? He’s putting twenty grand on the table.”