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 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 boost 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. 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 receives some technical assistance and guidance from FTA on how to manage 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.
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"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 desire to bring a ferry to town.
"They gave us that grant before Kushner Cos. was involved," said Adam Schneider, Long Branch's seven-term Democratic mayor. "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 Cos. development director emailed Woolley in July 2016 to set up a meeting to discuss "future pier/ferry/helicopter," among other issues.
A 2017 email from a Kushner partner in the project proposed a concept that could offer more parking "to service a future ferry terminal."
In recent months, Kushner Cos. and partner Extell Development Co. sent Mayor Schneider their own proposal to partially fund a pier and ferry terminal that would be cheaper than the city's current plans, 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 it to the FTA in a recent phone call.
The FTA, which has not had a confirmed administrator since President Barack Obama's second term, 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 that to date, Long Branch has 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. "At a minimum he needs to recuse himself from anything involving infrastructure."
Kushner has not spoken publicly about his role in infrastructure policy in months. In recent weeks, Kushner has lost influential White House allies as he remains under the shadow of the Russia probe and has been stripped of his top security clearance.
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.
Last month the nonprofit Democracy Forward filed a complaint against the White House Office of American Innovation, which Kushner heads, alleging that a 70-page infrastructure memo the office wrote should be released to understand how it informed the infrastructure plan Trump sent Congress.
Trump's plan proposes spending $200 billion to leverage state and local tax dollars and private investment to fix the nation's infrastructure. Projects would be chosen in part by their ability to attract private investment.
In Long Branch, the Kushner family has been developing property for generations.
Kushner's mother and father own a block-long, $7.6 million estate on the beach.
The family business also has benefited from local tax breaks to build out the Pier Village resort. In September, the town awarded Kushner Cos. and Extell $20 million in taxpayer-backed financing and a 30-year tax abatement.
Once dubbed the "Hollywood of the East," Long Branch's scenic coastline deteriorated in the 1970s, after beachgoers decamped for Florida and the Caribbean.
Its fishing pier was destroyed in a fire in the 1980s. In the 2000s, Charles Kushner was among a group of developers who competed to win a contract to redevelop a piece of the waterfront, the mayor said. His plans were derailed when then-U.S. Attorney Chris Christie prosecuted him for illegal political contributions and tax evasion, and the elder Kushner served a year in federal prison.
The city got FTA funding to rebuild the pier in 2008.
Then, Jared Kushner won a contract in 2014 to build out the adjacent Pier Village resort and last fall, Kushner Cos. and Extell announced they would spend $283 million to add on condos and a 72-room hotel.
Schneider has publicly pitched the pier as a way to boost property values and aid redevelopment projects such as Pier Village.
"The success of these projects, located adjacent to the pier site, was a vital prerequisite for undertaking the reconstruction of the Long Branch Pier," the city wrote in a 2016 request for bids on the pier's design.
Pier and ferry service plans would face a thicket of state and federal approvals, experts said, because it would be difficult to land a ferry in Long Branch without building a breakwater to calm ocean swells.
The Kushners' new proposal would get around that by placing a large barge out in the water to serve the same purpose, Goodman said.
In the meantime, Kushner Cos. and Extell filed an application with the New York attorney general's office to market their condos for between $510,000 and $1.9 million.
A Chinese firm that helps raise money from wealthy Chinese as part of a U.S. visa-for-investment program published an article on its website last year listing Pier Village as an attractive investment. The firm did not respond to emails seeking comment. Kushner Cos. has used the firm for other real estate projects, but said it made "no efforts in the past" to tap the visa program for Pier Village.
The family has a longstanding relationship with Mayor Schneider. When the Kushners landscaped over part of a beach access road next to their home in 2011, residents protested that they couldn't reach the beach.
After a legal battle, Schneider signed a settlement allowing Charles Kushner to landscape the end of the street; the city, in return, built five public parking spots.
"They made the road less accessible to the public to satisfy Mr. Kushner's interests," said Tim Dillingham, executive director of the nonprofit American Littoral Society, which promotes marine conservation. "Along the Jersey Shore, wealthy people who own waterfront property are always politically influential."
Burke reported from San Francisco. Associated Press writer Jeff Horwitz in Washington and researcher Jennifer Farrar in New York contributed to this report.