A Kushner Ally Was Up for a Federal Post. Then the FBI Began Digging.
Posted July 26, 2018 6:22 a.m. EDT
Ken Kurson is a confidant of Rudy Giuliani. He is a onetime speechwriter for Donald Trump. And he is a close friend of Jared Kushner, Trump’s son-in-law, who appointed Kurson to run his weekly newspaper, The New York Observer.
This spring, those relationships appeared to yield a prestigious offer from the Trump White House: a seat on the board of the National Endowment for the Humanities, a federal body that doles out millions of dollars a year in grants to cultural institutions.
First, Kurson had to undergo a government background check. As part of that process, the FBI learned about allegations that he had harassed a New York doctor in 2015, according to Mount Sinai Hospital, where the doctor worked.
In late spring, the FBI interviewed Mount Sinai doctors and others about the alleged harassment, according to several people familiar with the matter, who requested anonymity to discuss a delicate situation. The female doctor had become so worried that Mount Sinai arranged for someone to accompany her to and from the hospital for at least a few days, two of the people said.
“In November 2015, Mount Sinai began an investigation into allegations of harassment made by two of our doctors against Ken Kurson,” the hospital said in a statement. “We also took measures to protect our staff and the alleged harassment ceased shortly thereafter. We are cooperating with the FBI on their current background check of Mr. Kurson.”
Kurson said in an interview last week that he withdrew from consideration for the government post around early June, citing the amount of paperwork involved in the vetting process.
The alleged harassment occurred while Kurson and his wife were on the verge of getting a divorce. The doctor, who had been a longtime friend of the couple’s, told hospital officials that she was concerned about what she saw as Kurson’s angry, erratic behavior, according to documents reviewed by The New York Times.
In the interview, Kurson referred to the doctor as “a very good friend.”
“I wish her nothing but the best,” he said. “Of course when couples divorce, emotions run high. Thankfully everything worked out very well for my ex-wife and my kids, and I consider this chapter long closed from three years ago.”
Kurson’s lawyer, Marc Mukasey, said the FBI’s questioning was related only to the background check. “That is a completely different ball of wax from a criminal investigation,” he said. “This was totally innocuous.”
An FBI spokeswoman declined to comment.
Spokesmen for the White House and Kushner did not respond to requests for comment.
Kurson, 49, spent years as a journalist before moving into political consulting. He became a speechwriter for Giuliani, the former mayor of New York, and was a co-writer of his 2002 book, “Leadership.” Kurson then spent several years at Giuliani’s consulting firm and helped run his short-lived 2008 presidential campaign.
Over the years, Kurson had also become close to Kushner and his father, Charles, who was an important New Jersey political donor until his 2005 imprisonment for tax evasion and other crimes. Kushner appointed Kurson to run The Observer in 2013.
During his four years there, The Observer published critical pieces on adversaries of Trump and Kushner. As Kurson advised Trump’s presidential campaign, The Observer endorsed him for president. While still editing the newspaper, Kurson sat in the Trump family box at the Republican National Convention.
It was during his time at The Observer that the alleged harassment took place.
In November 2015, about two weeks before Kurson filed for divorce, the Mount Sinai doctor reported to the hospital a sudden flurry of negative reviews about her on websites such as Yelp and RateMDs.com, according to the two people familiar with the matter.
A Yelp spokeswoman confirmed that the doctor had asked for a negative review to be removed. She said the person who had posted it soon shut down his or her Yelp account, deleting all of its posts.
At least one of the reviews remains online at RateMDs.com. A representative of the website did not respond to a request for comment.
One review that the doctor believed was posted by Kurson included a photograph taken inside a Mount Sinai waiting room, the two people said. Kurson was recorded by surveillance cameras at the hospital around the time that photo was taken, the two people said.
That same month, the wife of the doctor’s boss received emails from someone she believed to be Kurson. The emails made unsubstantiated allegations about the doctor and her boss, and his wife regarded them as a form of harassment, according to a person familiar with the emails and documents reviewed by The Times. The doctor’s boss reported those emails to Mount Sinai officials.
After the doctor told the hospital that she feared for her safety, Mount Sinai beefed up security in the hospital waiting room. It also arranged for the doctor to be accompanied to and from work and offered to find her temporary housing, the two people said.
The hospital retained K2 Intelligence, a private investigations firm, to help deal with the situation, according to three people familiar with the assignment. After that, the alleged harassment ceased, two of the people said.
A K2 spokeswoman said the company “does not discuss the nature or results of any client matters.”
This spring, Kurson — who a year earlier had joined Teneo, a public-relations and consulting firm — was poised to get a seat on the board of the National Endowment for the Humanities, which distributes more than $100 million a year to U.S. museums, libraries, universities, public broadcasters, individual scholars and others. The endowment has been a target of Republican attacks, and Trump last year proposed eliminating it. The endowment’s 26-member board, the National Council on the Humanities, consists largely of academics, authors, and leaders of museums, libraries and other cultural institutions. The job of council members is to advise the endowment’s chairman and make recommendations on grant applications. Members serve six-year terms and receive nominal compensation.
Kurson lacks the pedigree of typical members, although he has a 1990s Chicago indie rock background and now runs a website called Rock and Roll Globe.
Before Kurson’s planned nomination became public, The Atlantic published a first-person article by Deborah Copaken, a journalist who accused him of commenting on her breasts as she sought a job at The Observer. After that article appeared, Copaken said, she was contacted by a person who relayed a story about Kurson’s alleged behavior at Mount Sinai.
Copaken said the FBI interviewed her in early June as part of its background check of Kurson. She told agents the story she had heard about Mount Sinai, although she did not know if it was true.
Around that time, FBI agents contacted the hospital and its employees, including the female doctor and her boss, with questions about Kurson. The FBI agents asked about the online postings and Kurson’s other alleged actions, according to a person familiar with the questioning.
Last week, the White House announced Trump’s six nominees to the endowment’s board. Kurson isn’t on the list. In addition to three academics, it includes a corporate lobbyist, the head of a political consulting firm and an executive at the conservative Heritage Foundation.