By Carol D. Leonnig
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, April 18, 2007
Downtown developer Douglas Jemal avoided prison when a federal judge yesterday sentenced him to probation and declared that the countless good works he has performed for Washington and its residents far outweighed his financial fraud conviction.
U.S. District Judge Ricardo M. Urbina said the maverick leader of Douglas Development Corp. was "one of those rare cases" and that he felt compelled to balance the community's views about Jemal's character against the prosecution's demand for punishment.
More than 200 people from all walks of life submitted testimonials describing Jemal's kindnesses and generosity. Their letters told how Jemal found them jobs, cut their rent or gave them money during times of great need.
Under federal sentencing guidelines, Jemal faced a recommended three-year prison sentence for defrauding a lender of $430,000. As he stood before the judge, Jemal apologized to his family, friends and to the city for some careless and sloppy business practices that he blamed for his legal troubles.
"I know I made mistakes, and I know I'm not perfect," he said. "I would ask your honor to look today at the whole person. I care about buildings that have been abandoned and left alone. And I care about people who've been abandoned and left alone. I care very much about this adopted city of mine."
When the judge said it was "inconceivable" that he should force the 64-year-old businessman to go to prison, Jemal broke into tears. Urbina said he often has shown more leniency to violent drug offenders who repeatedly harmed the city but were helping the government convict their criminal associates.
Urbina ordered Jemal to pay a $175,000 fine for his role in the fraud.
Prosecutors initially sought a prison sentence of up to five years for the financial fraud conviction, and later agreed that 33 to 41 months was a proper penalty. The judge's rejection of the prison sentence floored the U.S. attorney's office and its public corruption team, which spent three years on the case.
Jemal's sentencing came nearly six months after a jury rebuffed most of the government's case, acquitting him of charges that he had bribed a former D.C. government official in return for sweetheart city leases on an impound lot and other properties. Jemal drew the prosecution's wrath when he described being convicted of only one of seven counts as "just a splinter."
The sentencing decision brought elation to a courtroom packed with Jemal's family, friends and extended network of investors and other colleagues. They broke into cheers and applause after the judge announced his ruling, then lined the hallway outside the courtroom in receiving-line fashion. Jemal shook hands, clapped backs and murmured "Thank you, thank you" to them one by one as he exited -- all the while patting a handkerchief at his teary nose and cheek.
"I'm not opening my mouth, " Jemal said, laughing, when asked for his reaction. "It always gets me into trouble."
Jemal, who has a large portfolio of office, retail, commercial and residential properties, is heralded for reviving downtown with projects creating vibrant hubs of housing, restaurants and shops. He has helped transform areas that were shunned by other developers.
His conviction stemmed from a scheme in which his company, Douglas Development Corp., created a phony invoice and misled his longtime business partner Joseph Cayre and financier Morgan Stanley. Prosecutors said Jemal tapped $430,000 from an escrow account that was meant to fix up an office building they owned together. He used the money for something else: buying another D.C. building.
Lead federal prosecutor Mark H. Dubester had urged the judge to send Jemal to prison to punish him and deter other business leaders from committing similar crimes. Dubester also stressed that a prison term would give the public confidence that wealthy white-collar criminals -- who can afford top-notch lawyers and give generously to charitable causes -- won't get off easier than "little guys."
Jemal had hired some of the most prominent white-collar defense attorneys in the city to represent him, his son, Norman Jemal, and his top leasing agent, Blake Esherick. Esherick, who was sentenced last month to eight months in prison, was convicted of the same wire fraud as Jemal and two counts of evading taxes by not reporting a home that Jemal purchased for him. The same jury acquitted Norman Jemal of all charges.
"Clearly, we're disappointed," Jeffrey A. Taylor, U.S. attorney for the District of Columbia, said in a statement. "In our view, this sentence -- well below that called for by the sentencing guidelines -- sends the wrong message to the citizens of the District and the many honest businesspersons of this city."
The judge said he compared two disparate groups in reaching his decision: convicted felons-turned-cooperators for whom prosecutors urge reduced sentences and community members who attested that Jemal's generosity changed their lives.
"They have committed numerous, numerous crimes," Urbina said of the informants. "They have lived such a corrupt life that it now helps them buy their way out of trouble."
By contrast, Jemal had demonstrated a genuine selflessness, he said, helping homeless men get work, giving plane tickets to poor workers for family visits, even giving his beloved dog to a woman suffering mental anguish.
"One thing is clear: Mr. Jemal has devoted much of his adult life to good, charitable causes," Urbina said. "When I compare the valuable and worthwhile services [repeat offenders] provide to society and I see what Mr. Jemal has done over the course of his lifetime, it is inconceivable to me that I should impose the penalty proposed here. . . . Being fair means being fair."
Several of Jemal's supporters came to court to testify in person. They included native Washingtonians who said Jemal gave them their first jobs as clerks or construction workers and inspired them to go into management; a police officer's widow who said Jemal provided free office space for a national support group for similar widows and families; and a Bladensburg pharmacist whose business thrived when Jemal agreed to cut the rent.
"Douglas is like the father I never had," said Jerome Robinson, a former District resident who worked for Jemal for 20 years and now owns a music store in North Carolina. "He was the foundation of my life."