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.
During the trial, people like Gerry Widdicombe, director of economic development for the Downtown Business Improvement District, worried that those projects might be in danger. "It's important to the city that he's been a venture capitalist, going to places others haven't gone," Widdicombe said. "That would be a risk-taker that would be lost."
Jemal said he didn't stop running his business during his trial, although he had to pass on a few deals. "I had too much on my plate," he said. He says he has no plans to slow down and doesn't expect businesspeople to shun him.
"Morgan Stanley and others said they'd still do business with me because we're not crooks," he said. "You can't build a company if you're crooks. You can't go back to that well that many times."
He pointed to a line of credit he got from Cardinal Bank after he was charged that allowed him to close a few days into his trial on a $15 million deal on F Street NW. He got two loans totaling $188 million from New York-based Gramercy Capital Corp. this year.
"We've had no problem getting financing and getting loans," Jemal said. "It's a large testament to us."
Despite the wire fraud conviction, the feeling at City Hall was that Jemal had beaten the rap.
"It was a major wrongdoing," said D.C. Council member Jim Graham (D-Ward 1), who spearheaded the public investigation into Jemal's dealings with Lorusso.
But Graham did not take issue with the result of the trial. "I'm not happy or unhappy with the jury decision," he said. "It's fact. He's entitled to a trial by a jury of his peers. I hope that he's able to reconstruct his life and continue to serve all the interests he works for. He's done a lot of good things for the city."
Council member Carol Schwartz (R-At Large), who was also involved in the investigation of Jemal and his ties to Lorusso, said, "I just hope in the future that all people who are going to do business with our government and those who work for the government are on notice to make sure they act properly, or they will be prosecuted. "
As for Jemal, he's still got five suits, 12 dress shirts, six ties and 12 pairs of dark socks that he bought from Brooks Brothers for the trial.
"Maybe I'll have a raffle or give them away," he said.