Sometimes where there's smoke, there is just smoke. And my gut tells me that's what U.S. Attorney Kenneth Wainstein is about to find out as he tries to win a conviction against developer Douglas Jemal on charges of bribing a city official to win sweetheart business deals.
In the past few days, I've spoken with a dozen developers and business leaders who've had dealings with Douglas (like Cher and Madonna, he's a one-of-a-kind character often referred to with a single name). And to a person, they simply can't believe that he would have set out to bribe anyone, or risk so much for so little, or do anything to hurt an adopted city in which he invested so much of himself.
What they can believe is that Douglas had the bad judgment to befriend Michael Lorusso, a former developer turned deputy director of the District's property management office, who fancied himself something of a dealmaker in the Douglas mold.
Nor is anyone particularly surprised that Douglas might have invited Lorusso to his box at the MCI Center, or bought him a pair of cowboy boots from a fabulous store he discovered, or even picked up his bill at a fancy hotel in Las Vegas while attending an industry conference together. Douglas inappropriately showered generosity on all his friends -- including, it now seems, at least one public servant he shouldn't have and who should have known better than to accept it.
It might also come as no shock to those who know him that Douglas was hardly punctilious about separating his personal and business finances, keeping careful records or worrying about what needed to be reported as employee compensation to the IRS.
But what they can't believe, not for a minute, is that Douglas would have risked his reputation as a straight shooter and his sizable personal fortune for a lousy bit of city business that might have been worth an extra million or two.
Remember, this is a guy who, having sunk lots of his money in the old Woodies building on F Street, refused to rent it out at top dollar for another CVS or bank branch. Instead, he waited until he could land a much less lucrative lease with the H&M department store, which he knew would be more important to the downtown retail revival he's been dreaming of since he opened his Wiz outlet on F Street in the 1970s.
This is the same Douglas who never refuses when a friend asks him to buy a table at a charity event or kick in $10,000 for a civic cause. A second-generation Sephardic Jew, Douglas bought a historic synagogue that was about to be turned into a nightclub, then persuaded several of his developer pals to join him in restoring it to its former grandeur.
No doubt about it: Douglas has an unorthodox style.
At a time when nearly every other developer has gone public or turned corporate, Douglas is the last of the freewheeling entrepreneurs -- a high school dropout who takes risks where others won't and does deals on a handshake.
He regularly works 16-hour days, then cruises the restaurants and bars of the East End with his son Norman and his first lieutenant, Blake Esherick, often ending up at his favorite table at the Capital Grille on Pennsylvania Avenue.
His work attire consists of blue jeans and a T-shirt, although for special black-tie events he'll put on sneakers and a Hawaiian shirt.
And although his holdings have grown to 400 properties, Douglas still insists on negotiating deals himself with the top decision-makers on the other side -- no lawyers or teams of MBAs, no haggling over every line of 50-page purchase and sale agreements.
To those he dislikes or distrusts, he often makes outrageous demands, secretly hoping they'll walk away. With everyone else, he leaves money on the table, as a down payment on the next deal.
The 39-page indictment against Douglas, Norman and Esherick is a repetitious list of infractions, some of them embarrassingly penny-ante, others tax-avoidance maneuvers no doubt familiar to many a privately held business. Run-of-the-mill real estate refinancings and commissions arrangements are portrayed as shady and nefarious. And much of the evidence appears based on testimony from Lorusso, who already has pleaded guilty and whose sentence is dependent on delivering up Douglas.
What's not there, even after several years of investigation, is evidence of any quid pro quo in his relationship with Lorusso, or even proof that the District's taxpayers have been fleeced. A credible motive is also hard to discern.
Maybe all that will come out at trial. But for the moment, I'm sticking by a colorful and committed businessman who's done more than anyone to enrich the quality of life in downtown Washington.
Steven Pearlstein can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.