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Thursday, Capital Grille; Friday, Federal Court

Developer Douglas Jemal plans to redevelop land along the Anacostia River. He has made lots of money by fixing up buildings in rundown parts of Washington that became developed, such as the area around the Verizon Center.
Developer Douglas Jemal plans to redevelop land along the Anacostia River. He has made lots of money by fixing up buildings in rundown parts of Washington that became developed, such as the area around the Verizon Center. (By Dudley M. Brooks -- The Washington Post)

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By Dana Hedgpeth
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, September 4, 2006

Douglas Jemal swept into the Capital Grille as usual on a recent Thursday night, knocking back Ketel One vodka on the rocks with a lime, hugging and back-slapping half a dozen men gathered at the bar.

This is a landscape where politics and money intersect. Where Jemal, a wealthy developer, drinks and dines. Cigar smoke swirls above cufflinks and cleavage. A bison head hangs on the dark, paneled walls. Thick, aged steaks are stacked behind glass in a walk-in refrigerator.

Jemal is a Thursday night regular, and his routine appears undisturbed by the corruption trial he is facing, though jury selection in federal court is only days away, scheduled to begin Friday.

At the peak of a colorful and successful career, the 63-year-old developer is accused of crossing the line between making friends and buying favors, giving gifts to a mid-level District bureaucrat as part of a scheme to get favorable government contracts for his company.

Jemal's charges include bribery, conspiracy, and mail and wire fraud. The bribery count alone carries up to a 15-year sentence. On trial with him are his son Norman and Blake Esherick, both of whom line up tenants and manage his properties. All three defendants deny the charges.

Jemal's defense is that he and his business associates gave gifts to Michael A. Lorusso, the former deputy director of the city's Office of Property Management who worked with leasing contracts but denies that they were meant to influence him. His only crime was picking a bad friend, other friends say. A former amateur boxer, Jemal says he will fight, as he always has.

"How many guys come from the street and get to the level I am? How many?" Jemal said, his voice rising slightly. "I wore 'em down because I didn't give up."

And, he said, he's simply a generous guy. He once bought a pair of cowboy boots for a cabdriver in Dallas.

Jemal in Washington

Jemal -- 5 feet 11 1/2 inches tall, 185 pounds, shaved head -- is a distinctive presence. At the Capital Grille, at 6th and Pennsylvania Avenue NW, he wades through the heart of knotted-tie Washington wearing jeans and cowboy boots.

He's known for picking up the tab. He treats the occasional passerby. The two pairs of cowboy boots costing more than $1,000, the flights to Las Vegas and Florida, the Rolex, sports tickets -- the things he and his associates bought for Lorusso -- were gifts, Jemal says, requiring no payback in his world.

He made a name for himself in Washington in 1991 when he bought the Park & Shop, a retail strip in Cleveland Park, invested millions of dollars to fix it up, then sold it. Later, he bought the Woodward & Lothrop building at 10th and F streets NW and helped lure clothing retailer H&M and West Elm furniture there.

A high school dropout from Brooklyn, Jemal made his money in retail and electronics businesses -- and as founder and president of Douglas Development Corp. These days he keeps a wine locker at the Capital Grille. They cost $500 a year, and there's a two-year wait for one. One black-lettered, gold-plated sign reads "Douglas Jemal." Another says "F. Sinatra," one patron's tribute to the entertainer.


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