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Jemal Jumps Right Back In

Developer Douglas Jemal got reacquainted with his parrot Eagle on Friday, the day after he was acquitted of most charges in his bribery trial.
Developer Douglas Jemal got reacquainted with his parrot Eagle on Friday, the day after he was acquitted of most charges in his bribery trial. (By Lucian Perkins -- The Washington Post)
By Dana Hedgpeth
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, October 30, 2006

For seven weeks, Douglas Jemal showed up in federal court in a conservative suit, white dress shirt, tie and polished black shoes.

On Friday, the 63-year-old maverick builder returned to running his business full time, a day after his acquittal on bribery and conspiracy charges. Settled into his funky office in the heart of Chinatown -- with two parrots, three aquariums, a wall-mounted moose head and a full bar -- he was back in his usual jeans, a collarless oatmeal-colored shirt and black cowboy boots.

"It's nice to have a public vindication," he said between calls of congratulation. "I'm very happy to be back at work. I'm very happy that I'm not sitting in a courtroom in a suit. And I'm very happy to be myself again."

Jemal was found guilty of one of the charges against him, wire fraud. His son, Norman, was acquitted of all charges, and a top lieutenant, Blake Esherick, was found guilty on one count of wire fraud and two counts of tax evasion.

Jemal "is making it seem like he got off, but in fact he got convicted of a felony," said Jeffrey A. Taylor, U.S. attorney for the District of Columbia. "Our view is this was a significant victory in a tough, hard-fought case."

The wire fraud charge, Taylor said, was "the most serious of the charges . . . because it has the highest statutory maximum of prison time" -- 20 years. Under federal sentencing guidelines, Jemal's sentence could be much lighter, possibly nothing more than probation. But Taylor said "it is certainly conceivable he will receive prison time." Sentencing is scheduled for April 16.

Jemal declined to say how he would run his business if he has to go to prison.

The developer's lawyers say they will try to get the conviction overturned. Jemal said of the wire fraud verdict: "It's like stepping on a splinter. It's a little pinch."

A high school dropout from Brooklyn who became one of Washington's premier developers, Jemal is known for closing deals with handshakes and making major buys quickly. In 40 years, he has built a regional real estate portfolio that includes 10 million square feet of office, residential, retail and commercial properties in 185 buildings. He helped revitalize much of the city's East End, turning rundown storefronts into condominiums and shops.

Jemal's reputation wasn't the only thing at stake when he was charged with bribing District official Michael Lorusso in exchange for sweetheart deals. The future of Jemal's Douglas Development Corp. was also in question. Some in the real estate community worried that a conviction on bribery charges would damage his ambitious and wide-ranging projects. Jemal, they say, is the key to his company.

"Douglas Development is Douglas," said Leonard A. Greenberg of Greenhill Capital Corp. in Bethesda, who has done business with Jemal. "He's an entrepreneur extraordinaire."

Jemal has plans to remake a tired-looking block along New York Avenue NW, near the Washington Convention Center, into a vibrant mixed-use development. London architect Norman Foster is working on plans for the Uline Arena near Union Station, which Jemal owns. He envisions turning an area where old oil tanks sit along the Anacostia River into something like Baltimore's Inner Harbor. Jemal says he has at least a dozen more projects in the pipeline.

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