By Jared Chausow
By Katie Toth
By Elizabeth Flock
By Albert Samaha
By Anna Merlan
By Jon Campbell
By Jon Campbell
By Albert Samaha
More than a few local politicians had reason to cringe last week when a photo of one of the metro area's biggest campaign donors showed up on the New York Post's front page alongside the headline "SEX TRAP." New Jersey real estate tycoon Charles Kushner, federal prosecutors charge, used hookers to try to blackmail potential witnesses against him in a tax fraud case.
Before that story broke, Kushner was someone politicians used their sharpest elbows to get next to. A golden-giver with the deepest of pockets, Kushner was someone whose generosity was mostly aimed at Democrats. The hooker-bust stories focused on a whopping $369,000 that Kushner funneled, via family and aides, to his friend and patron, New Jersey governor James McGreevey. But the governor is only the most recent of Kushner's political projects. In October 2002, he cut a personal check for $1 million to the national Democratic Campaign Committee; a dozen other checks written by family and business aides from 2001 to 2003 added another $300,000 to Democratic national coffers. Other recipients included senators Hillary Clinton, Chuck Schumer, and Frank Lautenberg, as well as disgraced ex-senator Bob Torricelli.
On occasion, Kushner's generosity extended to Republicans as well. A personal friendship between Kushner and Bruce Teitelbaum, Rudy Giuliani's former chief of staff, resulted in a 1999 visit by the then mayor to a Livingston, New Jersey, Hebrew school founded by Kushner and his family. As the Times' Dan Barry and Abby Goodnough related the story back then, "the event segued into a fund-raising event in the mayor's honor." About $100,000 was raised. Many of the checks, however, were written against Kushner's various real estate partnerships, a practice that ran afoul of Federal Elections Commission rules that barred gifts of more than $2,000 per person. Giuliani later was forced to return about half the money.
When Kushner used the same tactic to back Bill Bradley's presidential bid in 2000, plowing $40,000 into the campaign from 40 separate partnerships, the FEC opened a full audit of his practices. The audit found $540,900 in improper contributionsmainly unauthorized funds given in the name of Kushner's partners. On June 30, just two weeks before Kushner's arrest, the FEC announced that the developer had agreed to pay a $508,900 civil penalty and henceforth reform his campaign-giving practices.
Bradley's campaign was the only one cited in the FEC's announcement. But an interim report by the commission's general counsel in May 2002 named 13 separate campaign committees that each received clusters of bundled checks from Kushner, allegedly from different individual partners but most signed in the same handwriting and listing the same address. Among the recipients were the Democratic National Committee, which got $164,000; Friends of Giuliani Exploratory Committee, $134,000; Clinton for U.S. Senate, $78,000; Al Gore's 2000 campaign committee, $51,000; Lautenberg for Senate, $65,000; and Friends of Schumer and Schumer '98, $49,000. (Schumer's committee last week donated $4,000 it received directly from Kushner to charity; it declined to give up another $60,000 from his partnerships.)
Each of those committees, the FEC's counsel wrote, had good reason to scrutinize the contributions, given the checks' unusual similarities. But they didn't. As a result, the candidates "may have violated" sections of federal election law. The counsel told FEC commissioners that he "found reason to believe" that the campaign committees and their various treasurers had "knowingly accepted contributions made in the name of another," and had "failed to report all contributor information."
But while the FEC moved full scale against Kushner (with the New Jersey U.S. attorney's office conducting a parallel criminal investigation), the counsel noted that a probe into each of those candidates on the receiving end would require "significant commission resources." Hence, no action was taken against those who got the loot, other than Bradley's committee, which paid a $16,445 civil penalty, since it was the unlucky target of the FEC's original audit.
Former city councilman Noach Dear picked up decidedly modest support from the Kushner fundraising machine when he ran for Congress in 1998 and 2000. Records show he received about $7,500 from Kushner and his associates.
But Dear, who served 18 years in the council representing Brooklyn's Borough Park, and who once boasted a close relationship to Bill Clinton due to his ability to raise money for the Clinton-Gore ticket among New York's Orthodox Jewish business community, came in for blistering language in a recent FEC audit. During his unsuccessful run for the Ninth District congressional seat representing Brooklyn and Queens (a seat won by Anthony Weiner), auditors found that Dear and campaign treasurer Abraham Rotha certified public accountantaccepted "several sets of sequentially numbered money orders." The money, purportedly from 47 individual contributors, totalled about $40,000.
When interviewed, however, those whose names appeared on the money orders told FEC investigators they had never made donations to Dear's committee.
So where did the money orders come from? Auditors discovered that the culprits were two key aides to Dear's campaign committee. Nicholas Lagemann, Dear's campaign finance director, and Bella Vais, his chief of staff, "executed at least some of those money orders in the name of others," according to a civil complaint filed against Dear in federal court.
Nor were fraudulent money orders the only problem the audit found. In his 1998 campaign, Dear accepted a whopping $564,000 in contributions that exceeded federal limits, according to the FEC. Dear's committee agreed to return the excess contributions, and in its midyear 1999 filing claimed to have done just that, making refunds of more than $300,000. But that wasn't true either, auditors discovered. In fact, the complaint stated, the refunds were never made. As late as June 2003, when the FEC, unable to get Dear to agree to pay up, filed its complaint, he still had failed to refund more than $200,000 of the excess contributions.