LONG BRANCH, NEW JERSEY - The federal government has been advising a beach town on the Jersey Shore on plans to build a pier and start a ferry service that would speed New Yorkers to the doorstep of a resort co-owned by Jared Kushner.
Kushner's seaside resort sits right next to the proposed pier, which places the federal government in the awkward position of helping steer a project that would benefit President Donald Trump's son-in-law and senior adviser. Once the project is complete, a former city official said it would raise property values at the Kushner resort, which is currently selling 269 condos for as much as $1.9 million each.
The Federal Transit Administration, an agency under the Transportation Department, first gave Long Branch $3.34 million in 2008 to redevelop a fishing pier beloved by generations of beachgoers, but that's not enough money to finish the project. So city leaders have been talking with federal transit officials about how to apply for more funds, and say the agency highlighted the ferry plan at a conference last year as a promising way to improve traffic by getting commuters off the roads.
Long Branch also gets FTA technical assistance and guidance on its current grant.
Kushner resigned as CEO of his family's company in January 2017 to join the White House, but according to a December financial disclosure report he still owns part of the Pier Village resort, which is currently selling its beachfront condos.
If the pier is rebuilt on its historic site and the ferry starts up, the value of those condos could rise as much as 50 percent, said Howard Woolley, Long Branch's former business administrator.
Kushner Cos. spokeswoman Christine Taylor said the pier would benefit Long Branch, and had “no specific benefit to us versus anyone else” in town.
“Of course, we, like other high-class developers, discuss projects that help the communities that we serve,” she said in a statement. “To suggest that we have done anything unethical is patently false and appears to be drummed up again for political gain.”
Woolley said he would regularly brief the Kushner family on the city's efforts to fund the pier, including in-person visits with Kushner's father, Charles. One meeting in 2015 ended with a round of cigars with the senior Kushner atop Kushner Cos.' headquarters in a Manhattan skyscraper, Woolley recalled.
“Charlie was interested in seeing it built. We all agreed it would be good for the city and good for Pier Village,” Woolley said.
Woolley and Long Branch officials stressed there was no connection between Kushner's ownership of the resort and their longstanding efforts to bring a ferry to town.
“They gave us that grant before Kushner Cos. was involved,” Mayor Adam Schneider said. ``If the federal government thinks it is a conflict, let them do something about it. I'm just advocating for my city.''
Emails obtained through the Open Public Records Act and interviews indicate the Kushner family and local leaders sometimes coordinated.
A Kushner official in July 2016 wanted to set up a meeting to discuss “future pier/ferry/helicopter.” A 2017 email from a Kushner partner in the project proposed a concept that could offer more parking for ferry passengers.
And in the past few months, Kushner Cos. and partner Extell Development Co. sent Mayor Schneider their own proposal for a pier and ferry terminal that would be cheaper than the city's current plan, said Robert Goodman, Long Branch's liaison to the federal government. Schneider confirmed that he and Charles Kushner recently “exchanged ideas” about Kushner's proposal. Goodman said he mentioned the proposal to the FTA in a recent phone call.
The FTA, which has not had a confirmed administrator since January 2014, declined to respond to questions from The Associated Press about the potential for conflicts of interest with Kushner in the White House. The agency sent a statement saying it has given the city “technical assistance on how it could become eligible to receive certain FTA funds.” The FTA said to date, Long Branch had not applied.
Given Kushner's role advising Trump on policy issues ranging from Middle East peace to infrastructure, some question whether those small-town business ties now pose a conflict of interest.
“The development of that project will accrue to the benefit of the family's business, and will certainly enhance the value of his prime beachfront property,” said Virginia Canter, an attorney with the nonprofit Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington. “He needs to recuse himself from anything involving infrastructure.”
Kushner has taken no part of any business, loans, or projects with his family's business since joining the government, said Peter Mirijanian, a spokesman for Kushner's attorney Abbe Lowell.
“He has followed the ethics advice he has received for all of his work which include the separation from his business and recusals when appropriate,” Mirijanian said.