Saturday, July 24, 2004

Top Democratic donor entrapping his brother in law?

So, did you get my gift?
Monday, July 19, 2004 Posted: 11:25 PM EDT (0325 GMT)

A top Democratic donor is accused of entrapping his brother-in-law -- and sending his sister the tape

One must work hard to resist the Sopranos comparison. If the show has taught anything, it's that beneath the garish veneer of suburban New Jersey family life steams a sewer of betrayal.

But the comparison is actually unfair to the Soprano clan. Bad as he is, Tony would never pull something as bumbling and psychosexually crude as what Charles Kushner, a real estate impresario and one of the Democratic Party's most generous political donors, is alleged to have done to his sister.

U.S. Attorney Christopher Christie filed a complaint last week charging that Kushner, whose company's holdings are said to be worth $1 billion, recruited a prostitute to seduce a man who used to work for him.

The complaint says the man's wife was cooperating with investigators examining whether Kushner broke tax and campaign-finance laws. Kushner, prosecutors say, wanted leverage over the ex-employee, so he not only hired the hooker to have sex with the man but had their congress videotaped.

The woman approached the target in December by saying her car had stalled. The next day, the complaint says, he met her at the Red Bull Inn in Bridgewater, N.J. They had sex as a hidden camera rolled.

Kushner held on to the tape for several months. The complaint doesn't accuse him of trying to blackmail the ex-employee during this period (although, in an unnecessarily ribald aside, the complaint notes that Kushner watched the video and "expressed satisfaction").

In May, for reasons that defy immediate explanation, he sent a copy of the tape to the man's wife, who turned it over to federal law enforcers. Although the complaint omits the other players' names, it wasn't long before they were leaked: the wife is Kushner's sister Esther. The ex-employee is Kushner's brother-in-law William Schulder.

Neither of the Schulders returned calls, but Benjamin Brafman, Kushner's lawyer (past clients: Michael Jackson, P. Diddy), said his client would be exonerated. He also sent a statement saying Kushner who could face 25 years in prison on charges that include promoting prostitution and obstruction of justice is "widely known as a very generous philanthropist."

That, at least, is true. Kushner's cash has built a school, inner-city programs and several political careers. According to the Center for Responsive Politics, employees of Kushner Cos. gave more money ($82,000) to Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton from 1997 to 2002 than those at any other firm. (A Clinton spokeswoman says the Senator will return Kushner's latest contributions if he is convicted.)

In October 2002, Kushner made a single donation of $1 million to the Democratic Party. Kushner is also the biggest financial backer of New Jersey Governor James McGreevey, who was only a mayor when Kushner began writing him checks in the '90s. "The amount of money he raised is unusual for one person," says Ingrid Reed of the Eagleton Institute of Politics. "He's not a household word...but he was a respected, well-known figure among the elite."

Of course, you can't link the beneficiaries of Kushner's largesse to the current allegations. U.S. Attorney Christie, a Republican who has not ruled out a race against McGreevey next year, was careful to say last week that none of these charges "has anything to do with Mr. McGreevey."

But many people including Kushner's brother Murray; Robert Yontef, a former Kushner accountant; and at least one state senator have raised questions about Kushner's political donations over the years. In a February 2003 suit, for instance, Yontef alleged that Kushner asked him to conceal use of the firm's holdings to make campaign gifts. He also said Kushner gave money in partners' names without their knowledge.

At the time, Kushner's spokesman said Yontef was just a disgruntled ex-employee. But Christie's complaint last week says Kushner actually tried to have another prostitute entrap Yontef, who didn't take the bait. Theodore Moskowitz, Yontef's lawyer, says his client had no idea the woman's proposition had been orchestrated: "He thought it was funny. He called his wife on his way home."

Yontef's suit against Kushner was dropped earlier this year as part of a settlement. But last month Kushner agreed to pay a $508,900 fine to the Federal Election Commission for various mistakes.

Despite his earlier troubles, Kushner's friends were stunned by last week's lurid charges. "I have only seen the righteous side of this man, the side that gives an enormous amount to charitable causes," says former Newark city council member Cory Booker, who accepted $15,000 from Kushner in his unsuccessful bid to become Newark mayor in 2002.

Booker says he sat shivah with Kushner recently after the death of his mother Rae, a Holocaust survivor. Booker saw only a grieving son, not the venal plotter who would mail motel-room porn to his sister.

While Kushner awaits arraignment, New Jersey debates McGreevey's future. Besides the Kushner affair, the Governor is coping with the resignation of his commerce secretary amid charges of a sweetheart loan offer as well as the indictment of yet another of his fund raisers, David D'Amiano. (D'Amiano has pleaded not guilty to charges of influence peddling.)

The Governor said of Kushner last week, "I just pray for him and his family." But if McGreevey doesn't begin to follow through on promises to clean up New Jersey politics, he may be praying for a new job.

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