D.C. Jury Acquits Jemal of Bribery
Friday, October 27, 2006
Douglas Jemal, one of Washington's most prominent developers, was acquitted yesterday of charges that he bribed a city official to get sweetheart contracts and inflated profits at taxpayers' expense.
The jury in U.S. District Court convicted Jemal of one lesser count of wire fraud. But the panel resoundingly rejected the crux of the government's case, acquitting Jemal and two top lieutenants of his company, Douglas Development Corp., of the more serious charges of conspiracy and bribery.
"God bless you all," a tearful Jemal told jurors when he saw them leaving the courthouse. Giving them hugs, he declared: "Thank you, sweetheart. Thank you, dear."
From the start, Jemal, 63, denied wrongdoing in his dealings with the city. When he was indicted along with son Norman Jemal and leasing agent Blake Esherick in September 2005, Jemal said he was looking forward to the chance to clear his name and theirs after nearly two years of overlapping city and federal investigations.
Just before 3 p.m. yesterday, Jemal stood ramrod-straight in the courtroom as the jury foreman began to read the group's decision. When the foreman said, "Not guilty," on the chief counts, Jemal bent forward, his eyes beginning to water and rimmed with red. All told, he was acquitted of six of seven charges.
Prosecutors said Jemal could face up to 20 years in prison on the wire fraud charge. But under federal sentencing guidelines, his sentence could be much lighter, and he could wind up with just probation.
Known as a maverick developer who helped turn the city's East End near the Verizon Center from run-down storefronts into a vibrant area of housing, restaurants and shops, Jemal has an array of ambitious projects ahead, stretching from downtown to the banks of the Anacostia River in Southeast to Richmond. Now he will return to his daily routine -- and his trademark cowboy boots and jeans, which he had ditched for business attire for court.
He, his son and Esherick had recruited a veritable who's who of preeminent Washington defense lawyers to represent them in the trial that began Sept. 11. The jury acquitted Norman Jemal, the company's vice president, of all charges but found Esherick guilty on the wire fraud count as well as two counts of tax evasion relating to underreporting his income from Jemal. The bribery charges were always considered the most toxic in the case, but Esherick's conviction on the three felony counts is a serious blow, carrying the possibility of significant jail time.
Defense attorneys said they hoped to get the convictions overturned.
"We're relieved, of course," said Reid H. Weingarten, the lead defense attorney for Douglas Jemal. "He was charged with horrible crimes, of ripping off the District -- charges that never should have been brought."
U.S. Attorney Jeffrey A. Taylor said the guilty verdicts against Douglas Jemal and Esherick were a "vindication of a majority of our case." He defended the prosecution, saying, "This was a tough case, but given the serious allegations, we had to bring it."
The wire fraud charge stemmed from a document that Jemal and Esherick falsified and then used as a justification to get a mortgage company to release $430,000 in loan proceeds. The money went to a different business deal than the one specified in the mortgage. The defense contended that Jemal had a right to the money and that no one was hurt.