Less than 24 hours after New Jersey developer Charles Kushner pleaded guilty to retaliating against a federal witness and filing both false tax returns and false campaign-finance reports, the would-be political kingmaker was in his office on Columbia Turnpike in Florham Park. Shamed, humiliated, and facing at least a year and a half in jail, he was discussing his predicament with defense attorney Ben Brafman, marveling at how fast his life had unraveled. Wasn’t this the same man who had built Kushner Companies into a billion-dollar real-estate empire that controlled office buildings, condominiums, and apartments in half a dozen states? Hadn’t he skillfully crafted a role for himself as a major power broker with unfettered access by contributing millions of dollars to politicians?
It was no accident that when Bill Clinton was president, he made several appearances at Kushner functions in Florham Park. So had former Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu. And so, especially, had Governor James McGreevey, who, more than any of the others, was a political creature built of his will and cash. Kushner, 50, was also a towering figure in the Jewish community, building schools, helping synagogues, and contributing freely to a broad variety of causes both here and in Israel.
But there he was on that midsummer morning several weeks ago, forced to contemplate how, in what seemed like the blink of an eye, he had destroyed so much of what he had spent years working so hard to build. On June 30, he had to pay a $508,900 fine to the Federal Election Commission, one of the highest penalties ever assessed. Less than a week later, rather than be arrested, he turned himself in to the FBI to face a litany of criminal charges.
Now he has stepped down as chairman of his company. His days as a political force both nationally and in New Jersey are over. Saddest of all, he has shattered his once close-knit family. The days when the Kushner clan—Charles and his three siblings and all their spouses and kids and grandkids—would travel to Miami together for Passover are long gone. He and his older brother, Murray, have not spoken in more than two years as a result of a bitter lawsuit over money Murray believed Charles owed him from deals they had done together—a lawsuit that Charles Kushner’s supporters claim opened the door for the U.S. Attorney’s investigation into his campaign-finance activities.
And, of course, to add to the horror, the federal witnesses he had attempted to retaliate against were his sister and brother-in-law, who were cooperating with that same investigation. Kushner paid a prostitute $10,000 to lure his brother-in-law to a motel room at the Red Bull Inn in Bridgewater to have sex with him. A hidden camera recorded the activity, and Kushner sent the lurid tape to his sister, making sure the tape arrived on the day of a family party.
As he sat in his office less than 24 hours after his guilty plea, the phone rang. The caller couldn’t have been more unexpected—it was Governor Jim McGreevey. Though Kushner had given the governor more than $1.5 million for his two races and was instrumental in his rise to power, the two had barely spoken in months.
There is a strange symmetry to the fall of the two titans. Exactly one week before, McGreevey had also lost nearly everything he had worked his whole life to achieve. In an even more public, more personal, and more heavily scrutinized admission of guilt, McGreevey stood in the statehouse in Trenton, flanked by his oddly smiling wife and his parents, and admitted his own lies, deceptions, and sensational bad judgment. “My truth,” he said, “is that I am a gay American.”
Kushner’s split with McGreevey had occurred almost nine months earlier, when Kushner was competing with Bruce Ratner to buy the New Jersey Nets. During a conference call that included the governor and two officials of the New Jersey Sports and Exposition Authority, Kushner laid out his proposal for the basketball team, and asked for a $25 million subsidy from the state.
According to sources familiar with the call, McGreevey responded in a very un-McGreevey-like way: He said no, a word he rarely spoke to anyone. Thoughtfully, he explained why the state couldn’t spend vast sums of public money to keep the Nets in New Jersey. Perhaps surprised by the governor’s intransigence, Kushner was “angry and bitterly disappointed,” according to someone on the call, and he apparently lost it. He went into a screaming tirade—everyone was stunned. When Kushner hung up, McGreevey calmly said to those around him, “Well, I guess I won’t have to put up with Charles Kushner anymore.”
“The McGreevey administration was without adult supervision,” says one insider. “All the guys who could provide a compass were pushed out.”
But now there were no histrionics. “It was a very warm, personal conversation,” says Brafman, “between two close friends going through some very public problems. They talked about what they’ve each been going through, and they just wanted to support one another.”
In the middle of February, about a month after being sworn in as governor, Jim McGreevey made two appointments that would change the course of his career. He gave a seat on the board of the Port Authority to Charles Kushner, and he named Golan Cipel an adviser on homeland security.
McGreevey, who had been the mayor of Woodbridge, had always been viewed as a pleasant if uptight policy wonk. He worked hard, had very little fun as best as anyone could tell, and had an almost obsessive ambition, nursed since adolescence, to become governor. “He had a propensity for saying yes and being on both sides of the issues,” says one insider. “He would’ve called it being political.”
In an era of Internet fund-raising, instant polling, and a 24-hour news cycle, New Jersey still practices diner politics—deals are still brokered in vinyl-covered booths over coffee served by waitresses who call people “doll.” “The McGreevey administration is really a throwback,” says Jon Shure, who served as Jim Florio’s press secretary and now heads a policy forum called New Jersey Policy Perspective. “Up until the seventies, the way to become governor was by a handful of powerful county leaders deciding to pick you as the candidate. This is what happened in McGreevey’s case. The county chairs in Union, Essex, Middlesex, and Camden got together and said, ‘This is who we’ll back, this is who we’ll rally behind.’ ”
Kushner made essentially the same decision after McGreevey narrowly lost to Christine Todd Whitman in 1997. He decided to solidify and amp up what had been a casual relationship, believing McGreevey would win the next time around.
It was a perfect marriage. The only thing Kushner craved more than wealth was access to power. For his part, McGreevey, like all politicians, needed money. He also needed a way to keep his political team together until the next campaign began in 2001. So he started an organization called Committee for Working Families, which employed his key people and was largely funded by Kushner.
The Kushner family is part of a New Jersey phenomenon known as the Holocaust builders. In the post–World War II wave of survivors who came to America was a small group of men who settled in northern New Jersey and became extraordinarily successful builders and real-estate developers. In addition to the Kushners, there are the Wilfs, the Rosens, and the Zuckerman and Pantirer families. (Zuckerman and Pantirer were saved by Oskar Schindler, and everything they build has a street or a building named for Schindler.)
The families operate like clans, with sons and daughters and sons-in-law and grandkids all working in the business. They are active in communal Jewish life, and outside of the occasional mention in one of the Jewish newspapers, they work very hard to fly under the radar.
Kushner’s high profile was always an irritant to the other families. He has been referred to as the Dapper Don of the Holocaust builders. Not only did he have the silver hair, impeccably tailored suits, and the swagger, but like John Gotti, he brought far more attention to his community than any of the others were comfortable with. “In New Jersey, you contribute money not for access but results,” says Alan Marcus, founder of the Marcus Group, a political-consulting company. “Anybody who doesn’t admit that is lying.”