Nearly five years have passed since developer Douglas Jemal stood next to D.C. Mayor Anthony Williams to expound at a news conference on their shared vision for a reborn town.
The brash Brooklyn native, in sweatshirt and jeans, and the awkward, bow-tied mayor chortled about luring a department store to the long-vacant Woodward & Lothrop building. Williams preached his favorite gospel, of bringing apartments and shops to downtown's office canyons. Jemal nodded his shiny, shaved head in a fervent "amen."
Yesterday, Williams (D) issued a terse statement pledging to cooperate with federal prosecutors as they continue to investigate Jemal, 62, who was indicted with his two top deputies on charges of bribing a city official to secure office leases.
Developers and civic boosters were left to wonder how to reconcile the criminal allegations with the flamboyant character who possesses an uncanny sense of the next great neighborhood and a passion for preserving old buildings, as well as old dreams.
"In a buttoned-down city, Doug has been anything but," said Robert A. Peck, president of the Greater Washington Board of Trade. "He's a guy who has made things happen -- one would like to think in the proper way."
Jemal's holdings are dwarfed by the area's largest developers. CarrAmerica Realty Corp., for example, owns 21 million square feet, nearly three times Jemal's portfolio, which is slightly more than 7 million square feet. But his advocacy for rebuilding downtown and his embrace of high-profile projects have made him a prominent player.
It was Jemal who purchased the Woodies building at 10th and F streets NW for $28 million in 1999, then let it sit empty for four years until he found an upscale retailer -- the Swedish giant H&M -- he considered worthy of leasing it. It was Jemal who bought up Chinatown storefronts and properties near North Capitol Street and Howard University, long before most developers realized those neighborhoods were on their way back.
He grabbed the shuttered Avalon movie house on Connecticut Avenue and gave its boosters time to raise money to get the projectors rolling again. He bought a long-ago roller rink in Adams Morgan that should soon house the city's first Harris Teeter grocery.
And when a downtown synagogue-turned-church went up for sale, marketed as ideal space for a nightclub, Jemal -- known to appreciate drinks and dancing -- teamed with two other developers to preserve the building as a Jewish landmark.
"You're innocent until proven guilty," said Albert "Butch" Hopkins, chief executive of the Anacostia Economic Development Corp., which is partnering with Jemal on a project. "And you can't take away the accomplishments that he's had over the years."
Born into a large family of Sephardi Jewish immigrants -- his father is Egyptian, his mother from Syria -- Jemal dropped out of high school at age 15.
He moved to Washington in 1966 and, with his father and three brothers, founded the discount electronics chain The Wiz a decade later. In 1985, Jemal began buying buildings that housed Wiz stores. He is believed today to own about 300 properties in the District.
Douglas Development Corp. relocated a few years ago from Rockville to a handsome storefront it had renovated at Seventh and H streets NW, across from MCI Center. Jemal rented a luxurious apartment above the International Spy Museum -- another one of his firm's high-profile projects.
A baseball fan and strong believer in bringing a major-league team to the city, he readily gave a donation to a documentary by Washington filmmaker Aviva Kempner about the Jewish ballplayer Hank Greenberg.
In the past year or so, Jemal has bought land on both sides of the Anacostia River and in downtown Richmond, areas he considers prime new frontiers.
Those partnering with him said the indictments will not stop individual projects from going forward. But they also said the full impact of the allegations may not yet be clear.
"We'll see how this plays out, like everyone else," said Phillip Thomas, managing director of CarrAmerica, which is developing two downtown office projects on sites Jemal owns on F Street NW. "These guys have done a lot of good things for the city, and we're very confident in these two projects."