Report: SEC investigating Kushner Companies’ use of controversial visa program

"Invest $500,000 and immigrate to the United States," the company told Chinese investors last May.

Senior White House advisor Jared Kushner's sister, Nicole Kushner Meyer, third from left, poses at a promotional event in Shanghai on May 7, 2017, where she urged wealthy Chinese to buy stakes in real estate through a controversial program that offers U.S. residency in exchange for investments. CREDIT: Albee Zhang/AFP/Getty Images
Senior White House advisor Jared Kushner's sister, Nicole Kushner Meyer, third from left, poses at a promotional event in Shanghai on May 7, 2017, where she urged wealthy Chinese to buy stakes in real estate through a controversial program that offers U.S. residency in exchange for investments. CREDIT: Albee Zhang/AFP/Getty Images

The Securities and Exchange Commission has opened an investigation into the Kushner Companies’ use of an obscure and controversial visa program that lets foreign investors effectively buy an immigration visa to the U.S., The Wall Street Journal reported Saturday.

The company, which is owned by the family of senior White House advisor and Trump son-in-law Jared Kushner, received a subpoena last May for information related to its use of the EB-5 visa program, according to the report, which is based on anonymous sources “familiar with the matter.” The news follows on a report in The Wall Street Journal last August that The Kushner Companies received a similar subpoena from the U.S. Attorney’s Office in New York.

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“Kushner Cos. utilized the program, fully complied with its rules and regulations, and did nothing improper,” general counsel Emily Wolf said in a statement to The Wall Street Journal at the time. “We are cooperating with legal requests for information.”

The SEC investigation is being run out of the commission’s Texas office, in cooperation with the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Brooklyn, The Journal reports.

Jared Kushner came under fire last May after The Washington Post reported on a pitch his sister, Nicole Kushner, made to investors in Beijing for the family’s “Kushner 1” development in New Jersey. That event was organized by the Chinese company Qiaowai.

“Invest $500,000 and immigrate to the United States,” a brochure for the event reportedly declared.

The coveted EB-5 has been nicknamed “the golden visa.” To qualify, an investor generally has to front at least $1 million. But Kushner 1 and other Kushner Companies properties take advantage of a Targeted Employment Area program that lets investors qualify for an EB-5 if the invest just $500,000 in a development located in an area of high unemployment.

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Individual states use federal guidelines to decide whether a project is in a Targeted Employment Area. A Washington Post investigation last May found that The Kushner Companies worked with state officials to effectively gerrymander their TEA application — making it appear their luxury 65 Bay Street development, where apartments rent for up to $4,700 a month, was in an impoverished area of Jersey City.

U.S. Immigration Fund, which operates regional EB-5 centers in New Jersey, partnered with Kushner Companies on the 65 Bay Street and Kushner 1 projects. Its founder and CEO, Florida developer Nicholas Mastroianni, also worked on the Trump National Golf Course project in Jupiter, Florida, Bloomberg reported.

The Kushner Companies’ use of the program on several developments has likely saved it millions. Annual interest rates on EB-5 investments typically run from 4 to 8 percent, experts told The Post in May, while other forms of financing carry between 12 and 18 percent annual interest.

The EB-5 program has come under fire from politicians in both parties. Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-VT) called the program “a magnet for fraud” in an interview with CNN last March. A 2015 report by the nonpartisan Government Accountability Office found that the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Service wasn’t prepared to detect EB-5 fraud.

“USCIS does not have a strategy for collecting … some information on businesses supported by EB-5 program investments, that officials noted could help mitigate fraud,” the report said.

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Mark Giresi, U.S. Immigration Fund’s chief operating officer, defended his company’s use of EB-5 visas, saying its creates jobs for people across areas outside the immediate vicinity of a building project.

“In large urban markets like Jersey City, these types of real estate development projects create much-needed jobs, particularly in the construction industry, across areas of the city that cover multiple census tracts,” Giresi told The Washington Post in a statement last May.

Some Jersey City residents feel differently. The Kushner 1 development Nicole Kushner pitched to Chinese investors last May is in a census track with just 4 percent unemployment. But the map in its TEA application includes census tracts in the Bergen-Lafayette neighborhood, which has an unemployment rate of between 10.9 and 12.6 percent.

Asked how he felt about Kushner Companies using his neighborhood to finance its development, the Rev. Shyrone Richardson of the World Outreach Christian Church told The Washington Post it was “sad” and lamented the lack of jobs for local residents:

“Unfortunately, the people who are benefiting from this are not the people in this area.”