A real estate company owned by President Donald Trump’s son-in-law and senior advisor Jared Kushner on Friday filed a court action to shield the identity of investors in that firm in connection with a pending lawsuit in Baltimore.
The move — a transfer of a lawsuit back to Baltimore Circuit Court out of federal court — could make it more likely that Kushner’s company will ultimately lose a pending lawsuit by tenants.
But the action also will keep out of the public eye the names of every person and entity that has invested in the company.
“I would say the Kushners would do anything to keep the identities of the investors secret,” Andrew Freeman, a lawyer for two tenants suing Kushner’s real estate company, Westminster Management, told CNBC.
Freeman noted that there have been recent news reports about investments in Kushner’s companies by foreign interests.
In January, The New York Times reported that Kushner’s family real estate company received an investment of about $30 million from Menora Mivtachim, the large Israeli insurer, which was used to finance 10 Maryland apartment complexes controlled by the Kushner firm.
And two weeks ago, The New Yorker in an article detailed how the Kushner Cos. are seeking Chinese investors.
Kushner is married to Trump’s daughter Ivanka Trump.
In addition to Kushner, the other investors that have been identified as involved in ownership of the Baltimore properties in question are his parents, Charles and Seryl Kushner, and his brother Josh.
Freeman’s clients — Tenae Smith and Howard Smith — claim that Kushner’s company, among other things, illegally charged them late fees for rents on separate Baltimore apartments they live in.
The two plaintiffs filed suit in Baltimore Circuit Court last fall.
In response to the suit, Kushner’s company transferred the case to federal court for the District of Maryland.
As the basis for the request, the company claimed that all of the investors in the company lived out of Maryland.
Federal courts can handle cases that would otherwise be handled in local or state courts if they involve out-of-state parties.
However, under federal rules, those parties have to show proof that they live elsewhere.
Westminster Management had asked to keep that proof sealed out of public view, citing what it called unfair attention by journalists.
“Given the tenor of the media’s reporting of this case, including politically-motivated innuendo no doubt intended to disparage the First Family, there is foreseeable risk of prejudice to the privacy rights and reputations of innocent private investors,” Kushner Cos.’ lawyers wrote in a filing, according to The Baltimore Sun.
But a judge last month rejected Westchester Management’s bid to shield the identities of the investors. That bid had been opposed by the tenants and a group of media companies.
“Under common law, there is a presumption that the public has access to all judicial records,” wrote federal Judge James Bredar.
Bredar in his opinion noted: “The Defendants believe that because the Kushners, including the President of the United States’ son-in-law Jared Kushner, are members of Defendant LLCs, ‘the media has taken an unprecedented interest in this case’ and made ‘outrageous allegations, and assign[ed] guilt.’ Publicly releasing the citizenship of Defendant LLCs will, so the Defendants claim, only add fuel to this fire.”
On Friday, two new lawyers for Kushner’s company notified Bredar that they are now representing the firm.
And the new lawyers said in court filings that they now want the case sent back to Baltimore Circuit Court, where it was first filed.
One of those lawyers, Michael Blumenfeld, declined to comment when contacted by CNBC.
Chris Taylor, a spokeswoman for the Kushner Cos., said only, “Our counsel on this matter has determined that the case should be remanded to state court.”
CNBC has asked the White House for comment on the case.
If the case had gone to trial in federal court, Kushner’s company might have had a better chance at winning.
The jury pool for Maryland federal court has proportionately fewer tenants — as opposed to homeowners — than does the pool that provides jurors for cases tried in Baltimore Circuit Court.
There are “more tenants in a Baltimore City jury,” noted Freeman, the plaintiffs’ lawyer.
In his own filing Friday, Freeman wrote, “After expending over three months – and requiring substantial time and resources from both Plaintiffs’ counsel and the Court – Defendants have now belatedly agreed that they should never have attempted to remove this case to federal court. Plaintiffs do not oppose Defendants’notice of withdrawal.”
Freeman indicated in the filing that he wants to seek attorneys’ fees that occurred because of the delay from Kushner’s firm.