So, Did You Get My Gift?

  • 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.

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    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.

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