October 25, 2021

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Ken Kurson, Who Was Pardoned by Trump, Faces Charges in New York

Seven months after being pardoned by President Donald J. Trump, a onetime editor of The New York Observer faces new charges of unlawfully spying on his former wife by secretly gaining access to her computer.

The editor, Ken Kurson, a close friend of Mr. Trump’s son-in-law, Jared Kushner, was charged in state criminal court in Manhattan on Wednesday with eavesdropping and computer trespass, both felonies. Prosecutors accuse Mr. Kurson of using spyware to breach his wife’s computer in 2015 as the couple’s marriage fell apart. Each crime is punishable by up to four years in prison.

“We will not accept presidential pardons as get-out-of-jail-free cards for the well-connected in New York,” the Manhattan district attorney, Cyrus R. Vance Jr., said in a statement announcing the charges.

A lawyer for Mr. Kurson, Marc L. Mukasey, declined to comment.

Mr. Kurson used a software program called WebWatcher to monitor his wife’s computer keystrokes from The Observer’s offices in Midtown Manhattan, which allowed him to get the passwords to her Gmail and Facebook accounts, according to the complaint. He used the illicit access to spy on her from September 2015 to March 2016, prosecutors said. The couple divorced in January 2016.

The complaint said Mr. Kurson’s wife worked at a summer camp in 2015, where she became friendly with one of her co-workers. They stayed in touch after the summer was over, and the director of the camp later received an email containing copies of private conversations between the two, the complaint said. Based on that information, investigators believe that Mr. Kurson monitored his wife’s conversations with her co-worker.

Mr. Kurson was not a particularly adept user of WebWatcher, and he contacted the program’s customer service representatives several times, both to help him access his wife’s messages and to reassure him that she would not be able to detect the software, the complaint said.

“Like if someone at the Apple store is LOOKING for it, will they be able to find it?” he asked on one occasion in October 2015.

The charges are the latest twist in a case that first began in spring 2018 when the Trump administration nominated Mr. Kurson for a seat on the board of the National Endowment for the Humanities.

After the F. B.I. began a routine background check into Mr. Kurson, investigators soon learned of allegations that he had harassed several people, one of them a doctor at Mount Sinai Hospital.

Last October, federal prosecutors charged Mr. Kurson with cyberstalking and harassing three people, including the doctor, whom he blamed for the collapse of his marriage. At the time, Mr. Mukasey said that “the conduct alleged is hardly worthy of a federal criminal prosecution.”

But Mr. Kurson’s accusers said that his behavior — which included targeting the doctor with negative Yelp reviews, threatening emails and insinuations in calls to her office that she was having an affair, according to the federal complaint — had been “diabolical.”

A footnote in the federal complaint mentioned that in addition to the behavior for which he was being charged, Mr. Kurson had engaged in a pattern of harassment that included “installing software on one individual’s computer to monitor that individual’s keystrokes and website usage without his/her knowledge or authorization.”

In addition to his ties to Mr. Kushner, Mr. Kurson is a former speechwriter for Rudolph W. Giuliani, the former New York City mayor and a personal lawyer for Mr. Trump. He also faced criticism during the 2016 presidential election for advising Mr. Trump on a speech.

Court documents filed in November 2020 indicated that Mr. Kurson was in plea negotiations with federal prosecutors. But in his final hours in office, Mr. Trump rendered those talks moot by pardoning Mr. Kurson, along with a number of the president’s other associates, including his former chief strategist, Stephen K. Bannon.

The New York Times reported in February that Mr. Vance, a Democrat, had opened separate investigations into the conduct that led to the federal charges against Mr. Kurson and Mr. Bannon, raising the prospect of state charges, from which Mr. Trump’s pardon did not protect them. (The investigation into Mr. Bannon is ongoing.)

Mr. Vance’s office charged Paul J. Manafort, Mr. Trump’s former campaign chairman, with mortgage fraud and other felonies in 2019. A New York appeals court later ruled that the charges violated the state’s double jeopardy law.

But Mr. Manafort had already been tried and convicted on federal fraud charges the year before. Mr. Kurson has never been tried and New York’s double jeopardy law bars a second prosecution only when a jury has previously been empaneled or the defendant has pleaded guilty.

It was unclear whether Mr. Kurson’s former wife is cooperating with the district attorney’s office. In a written explanation about why the president had pardoned Mr. Kurson, the Trump administration said she had written a letter to federal prosecutors asking them to drop their case.

In July, Mr. Vance charged Mr. Trump’s family business, the Trump Organization, as well as its longtime chief financial officer, with participating in a sweeping, yearslong scheme to evade taxes on certain benefits.

The investigation into Mr. Kurson was led by the district attorney’s bureau of cybercrime and identity theft, which has been a priority for Mr. Vance.

William K. Rashbaum and Ben Protess contributed reporting.

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