It’s hard to find work right out of prison. But Avram Lebor and Richard Goettlich walked from their Alabama penitentiary into top jobs at the real estate company then run by Jared Kushner, now President Donald Trump’s son-in-law and senior adviser. The two men, convicted in separate sprawling fraud schemes, were hired several years ago by his father, Charles Kushner, who had been locked up in the same federal prison with them.
As 36-year-old Jared Kushner settles into a White House role that includes personnel decisions and Middle East peace, the most extensive organisational experience he has to draw from is his lifetime at the closely held family real estate company, where his father is once again deeply involved. It’s a business where, like Trump’s, family and loyalty loom large. Management at Kushner Cos. has been mercurial, its feuds bruising and its political influence considerable. Recent joint ventures and investments expanded by Jared could lead to opportunities for unseen influence. Given the company’s history, ethics lawyers say, such opportunities merit close watching.
“It can’t hurt to be doing business with Jared Kushner’s family,” said Larry Noble, general counsel for the Campaign Legal Centre, a nonpartisan organisation focused on election laws. “It’s a road to the administration. At the very least they’re going to have an inside track.”
In theory, both Kushner and Trump have dealt with the risk of conflicts of interest. Trump is turning over control of his business to his sons. Kushner has gone further, selling his share in many family assets. His lawyer, Blake Roberts, noted that the sale follows federal law and has been approved by the Office of Government Ethics.
Still, the purchasers are his brother and mother, and some ethicists say the potential for conflict remains; Kushner seems likely to know where the money is invested. His father, convicted in 2005 of witness tampering, illegal campaign contributions and tax evasion, remains central to the company.
Charles, 62, built Kushner Cos. as a simple business: buying and refurbishing suburban garden apartments on the East Coast. Since 2007 his son has transformed it into a flashier, more complex entity, controlling $7.5 billion of assets, according to Real Capital Analytics. It got there by trading $1.8 billion worth of the apartments for office and retail properties in Manhattan and Brooklyn, a leap that’s brought in Chinese investors, a slate of equity partners and almost $4 billion of debt, much owed to international banks. Also of Jared’s invention: an expanded credit arm announced after the election that will invest $1 billion into the debt structures of other people’s deals over the next five years. The fund has few regulatory or public disclosure obligations.
Charles completed his two-year prison sentence in 2006 for making illegal campaign contributions and hiring a prostitute to entrap his brother-in-law. Company officials say that while it has a president, Laurent Morali, Charles has been helping shape the company’s redevelopment plans, arranging deals and negotiating with officials.
“I talk to Charlie a lot. He’s working harder than he’s worked in a long time,” said Alan Hammer, a lawyer who has known Kushner for more than 35 years, represents the company and served as its chairman while Kushner was behind bars.
Working alongside him as the firm’s director of acquisitions is Lebor, 68, Kushner’s fellow inmate who joined the company in 2009. Lebor and Goettlich, 61, were both in the prison when Charles arrived in April 2005. Lebor was serving a seven-year sentence after he fraudulently promoted himself as a lender and mortgage broker and collected $9 million in advance fees while promising to obtain $2.5 billion in loans for dozens of projects that were never funded. Goettlich got 10 years after pleading guilty to securities fraud, money laundering and tax evasion in 1998. At his family’s firm, he’d defrauded thousands of investors in a Ponzi scheme involving office equipment leases. An initial order in 1999 to repay $271 million in fines and refunds was at the time the third-largest penalty ever imposed in a securities fraud case.
Goettlich’s son started a four-and-a-half-year stint at Kushner Cos. in May 2008, first as an intern, later as an associate in its hotel subsidiary, according to his LinkedIn profile. Goettlich, whose sentence ended in December 2008, joined the firm in early 2011 and is a leasing consultant.
Lebor was released from prison in August 2009 and joined Kushner Cos., which he frequently represents at events hosted by the International Council of Shopping Centers, a trade group.