Defense attorney Ben Brafman estimates that the television show "Law and Order" has based its "ripped from the headlines" episodes on about 20 of his high-profile cases. So, when the show decided to loosely model an episode on New Jersey multifamily magnate Charles Kushner, the lawyer knew what to expect.
"They've adjusted the facts to make the story more interesting or more dramatic in every case, including the Puff Daddy case," Brafman says. "They changed the facts to make the story better than if they just told the truth. They have that right because they claim that although the underlying plots are drawn from the headlines, the story itself is fictionalized."
In some ways, the real-life Kushner story may be better than a "Law and Order" episode. It involves a bitter family fight, an extensive network of campaign contributions, and charges of witness intimidation against members of his own family. (Kushner allegedly paid people to hire a prostitute and lure his brother-in-law into an extramarital dalliance. According to prosecutors, the scheme worked–and Kushner mailed a tape of the encounter to his sister, who was a grand jury witness in a case against him.)
In 2005, Kushner pled guilty to filing false tax returns, retaliating against a cooperating witness, and making false statements to the Federal Election Commission.
Brafman says Kushner's actions are the result of a family feud between Kushner, his brother, and eventually his sister. "Even extraordinary people are sometimes put in a position where they use poor judgment," the high-powered defense lawyer says. "I think Charlie was, in my opinion, put in a very difficult position by people who are intent on destroying him. He reacted impulsively without careful thought. Unfortunately, he is paying a significant price for what amounts to an isolated window of bad judgment in an otherwise extraordinary life."
Though the Kushner story may have been dramatized on "Law and Order," reality is far from glamorous: He's in jail and no longer leading his company. It's quite a fall from grace for the man who appeared on the cover of Multifamily Executive in June 2001. Still, the company, currently under the guidance of interim leader Alan Hammer, appears to be surviving the scandal. (Kushner is not allowed to speak to the press while he is in prison, his attorney says.)
By pleading guilty and accepting a two-year prison sentence at Maxwell Air Force Base in Alabama, Kushner also was choosing to separate himself from the company he built. "The rules do not allow a person who is incarcerated to run a business from within the institution," Brafman explains. "Charlie is scrupulously abiding by those rules."
While Kushner is reading and exercising in prison, those closest to him are running Kushner Cos. His wife, Seryl, goes into the office almost daily, and his two sons are also involved. "He has the strongest support from his immediate family that I have ever witnessed in my years of dealing with these types of issues," Brafman says.
Kushner looked outside his family and the company for an interim leader, choosing Alan Hammer, a long-time friend, to manage the company. "He came to my firm one year after graduation and became a partner," Hammer recalls. "He always said he was going to be my biggest client. ... When my biggest client got in trouble, I had to step in and watch the store."
But lawyer Hammer is no real estate novice. In addition to serving as Kushner's counsel from the beginning, he also operates his own real estate holdings. Such experience is a great relief to Kushner, according to Brafman. "He knows that Kushner Cos. is in good hands and that Alan Hammer and the other team members that were put in place before Charlie left are very capable people who he has 100 percent confidence in," the lawyer says.
While Kushner's actions may have put him in a negative light, the industry's view of the company and its management firm, Westminster Management, seems to have remained positive.
"Westminster Management is one of the leading participants in [New Jersey Apartment Association] programs to advance the professionalism of the apartment industry," says Jeanne Gorman, the association's executive director, who says the group appreciates Westminster's involvement in its work.
Hammer also says he hasn't noticed the CEO's scandal hurting the company itself. "We've made a number of land deals, and no one has had any objections to working with us," he says. "Our competitors are our competitors, but usually, at some time, you get to work with them. I've made a number of deals with our competitors in the interim, and they've gone nicely. I think the industry is watching. I don't know whether the industry is surprised or not that we continue to roll along as we do our business."
Hammer's strategy does differ from the charismatic Kushner's. "I'm much more conservative," Hammer says. "Charlie has been one of the most aggressive acquirers of property that New Jersey has probably ever seen. ... In the marketplace we're in, I've decided more to watch it than to actively participate in it."
Whether that changes when Kushner gets out of jail is anyone's guess.
"When Charlie comes back, he will have to decide whether he wants to be more aggressive than his old self or less aggressive than his old self," Hammer says. "He has to decide, having been away from his friends, family, and lifestyle, if he wants to jump in and work as hard as he used to work or whether he wants to spend time with the family. These are all decisions that no one will know until he's out of there and back here."