Je­mal’s Good Works Pay Rich Div­i­dend

The Washington Post Sunday - - Metro - By Carol D. Leon­nig

Douglas Je­mal isn’t your av­er­age big-city de­vel­oper. Not by a long stretch.

His mul­ti­mil­lion-dol­lar busi­ness over­see­ing at least 185 prop­er­ties is run like a small, in­for­mal fam­ily store — and its “ex­ec­u­tives’ meet­ings” look more like a fam­ily gath­er­ing at a bois­ter­ous pizza par­lor than a ses­sion in a stuffy busi­ness board­room. With his main of­fices in Chi­na­town adorned by a stocked bar and the com­pany par­rot, the 64-year-old ex­ec­u­tive kicks up his cow­boy boots and his deputies laugh, eat and gen­er­ally have a good time. Deals are done with a nod. Pa­per­work is an af­ter­thought.

Those un­ortho­dox ways got Je­mal in a heap of le­gal trou­ble with crim­i­nal prose­cu­tors over the last four years, lead­ing to a felony con­vic­tion for de­fraud­ing a mort­gage com­pany this fall. But last week, they also saved Je­mal from prison.

More than 200 peo­ple in this city and be­yond rushed to vouch for Je­mal, shar­ing sto­ries of the great kind­nesses and hon­esty that the high school dropout had shown them. They urged a fed­eral judge to be le­nient in sen­tenc­ing him. They re­peat­edly claimed that the same ec­cen­tric im­pulses that led Je­mal to buy aban­doned build­ings on gut in­stinct and do busi­ness based on trust also made him a man who gave thou­sands of dol­lars to strug­gling em­ploy­ees and strangers and lent a hand when it did noth­ing to boost his own for­tunes.

U.S. Dis­trict Judge Ri­cardo M. Urbina stunned prose­cu­tors Tues­day by sen­tenc­ing Je­mal to pro­ba­tion for

the felony fraud con­vic­tion — when fed­eral guide­lines rec­om­mended a three-year prison sen­tence. The judge said the sup­port­ers’ let­ters and tes­ti­mony show­cased a life­time of good deeds and that such a gen­uine out­pour­ing led to his de­ci­sion.

The com­mu­nity sup­port and the judge’s mercy forced many in Wash­ing­ton to re­flect on the cor­rup­tion case fed­eral prose­cu­tors so vig­or­ously brought. Had prose­cu­tors hastily con­cluded that Je­mal was run­ning a crim­i­nal scheme, some city lead­ers won­dered, when he may have been guilty only of sloppy busi­ness prac­tices and ques­tion­able short­cuts? Or had the Brook­lyn na­tive — who loved his adopted city so much and was so beloved in re­turn — got­ten lucky and es­caped years be­hind bars?

U.S. At­tor­ney Jef­frey A. Tay­lor said he was “very dis­ap­pointed” with the sen­tence. The pros­e­cu­tion’s case be­gan un­rav­el­ing last fall when the jury ac­quit­ted Je­mal of the most se­ri­ous charges — al­le­ga­tions that he bribed a D.C. gov­ern­ment of­fi­cial.

Tay­lor said his of­fice had a “clear duty” to pros­e­cute the prom­i­nent de­vel­oper. He noted that Je­mal’s at­tor­ney ac­knowl­edged that Je­mal pro­vided an ex­pen­sive watch and other gifts to the city prop­erty of­fi­cial, who signed off on roughly $100 mil­lion worth of leases to Douglas De­vel­op­ment Corp. The for­mer of­fi­cial, Michael Lorusso, pleaded guilty to tak­ing bribes and tes­ti­fied against Je­mal at the trial.

“We’re con­cerned about the mes­sage this sends, both to law-abid­ing and not law-abid­ing busi­nesses and to city of­fi­cials,” he said. “It can­not be the case, that, as a cit­i­zen of the Dis­trict of Columbia, that this is the way that busi­ness is done.”

Prose­cu­tors had some suc­cess go­ing af­ter Je­mal’s busi­ness team. Je­mal deputy Blake Esh­er­ick re­cently was sen­tenced to eight months in prison for the wire fraud and two ad­di­tional con­vic­tions for evad­ing tax on money Je­mal gave him. Je­mal’s chief fi­nan­cial of­fi­cer, John E. Brownell, pleaded guilty to a sim­i­lar tax eva­sion scheme and faces sen­tenc­ing in June.

Je­mal’s sup­port­ers, in­clud­ing a di­verse mix of busi­ness own­ers, re­cov­er­ing ad­dicts, im­mi­grants start­ing fledg­ling busi­nesses, for­mer city of­fi­cials and ten­ants, said they were not con­test­ing the con­vic­tion, in which a jury found that Je­mal had skirted the law and mis­led a part­ner to get ac­cess to $430,000 and buy a new build­ing.

The friends, most of them peo­ple who had done busi­ness with Je­mal, sim­ply ar­gued that it was im­pos­si­ble that he had done this with greed or crime in his heart.

Many of their sto­ries were en­dear­ing. Rahim Pa­ni­agua said he got his first job in Amer­ica from Je­mal, in 1981. He re­called how Je­mal spoke Span­ish but urged Pa­ni­agua to learn English to get ahead. Je­mal gave him $1,000 for plane tick­ets to visit his sick mother in Bo­livia, and an­other time, told him to take $1,800 in cash out of the store reg­is­ter to give to women who were host­ing Thanks­giv­ing din­ner for the poor, he said.

Jerome Robin­son told the judge he grew up poor and fa­ther­less on Mon­tana Av­enue NE in the 1960s. At 16, his life changed when Je­mal gave him his first job work­ing a fork­lift in one of Je­mal’s furniture ware­houses. Je­mal worked side by side with him to help him learn the job, Robin­son re­called, bought shoes for him and his brother, gave him his first car, and lent him a free room when he had no place to stay.

“Grow­ing up in the ghetto, I al­ways thought a white man would never do any­thing for you — un­til I met Douglas,” said Robin­son, 48, who now owns his own record store in Greens­boro, N.C. “Douglas gave ev­ery­body an op­por­tu­nity. He was the foun­da­tion of my life.”

Many praised Je­mal as a vi­sion­ary who took per­sonal risks to bring back to life the H Street and Ver­i­zon Cen­ter area, now a bustling com­mer­cial hub.

“The city and re­gion should be pre­sent­ing Mr. Je­mal awards for all he has ac­com­plished to fur­ther im­prove the city,” wrote Mau­rice Bre­ton, of Com­fort One Shoes. “Let’s not pun­ish Douglas for be­ing color­ful.”

Roger Leb­bin, pres­i­dent of Mid-At­lantic Builders, de­scribed how Je­mal in­sisted he ac­cept an in­vi­ta­tion to a four-star restau­rant to thank him for leas­ing space in a Je­mal build­ing in Bethesda.

“Why do they want to take their valu­able time to have din­ner with me?” Leb­bin said. “My com­pany is a small and in­signif­i­cant ten­ant, one of a thou­sand of their ten­ants and of lit­tle or no con­se­quence to his com­pany.”

They had a fun din­ner, with no agenda other than Je­mal thank­ing Leb­bin for be­com­ing a ten­ant.

James C. Dine­gar, pres­i­dent of the Greater Wash­ing­ton Board of Trade, said he does not know the de­tails of Je­mal’s pros­e­cu­tion, but was struck by the de­vel­oper’s hearty em­brace of his adopted city, and the com­mu­nity hug he got in re­turn.

Dine­gar said many peo­ple liv­ing in Wash­ing­ton aren’t orig­i­nally from here, and the city strug­gles be­cause not enough of them fol­low Brook­lyn-born Je­mal’s pat­tern of em­brac­ing its riches and its prob­lems.

“It’s ev­i­dent from this that when you give to the com­mu­nity, it gives back. The com­mu­nity came be­hind him, and peo­ple came to sup­port him, so his adopt­ing this city re­ally worked for him.”

Je­mal’s lead de­fense at­tor­ney, Reid H. Wein­garten, said walk­ing with Je­mal from his Chi­na­town of­fice to court was al­ways punc­tu­ated with peo­ple stop­ping to wish Je­mal well and say hello. Cab­bies. Jan­i­tors. Busi­ness­men. Po­lice of­fi­cers.

“Who among us, if heaven for­bid we were here, could present to a sen­tenc­ing judge this num­ber of heart­felt let­ters?” Wein­garten asked in court. “He’s not like other de­vel­op­ers or other peo­ple. His nat­u­ral in­stinct is to give, not to take.”

Robert Leib­ner, a Wash­ing­ton lawyer who has rep­re­sented Je­mal in the past, said he knows what makes Je­mal stand out: “I can state with ab­so­lute cer­tainty that what dis­tin­guished Douglas Je­mal from his com­peti­tors was ac­tu­ally very sim­ple — while Douglas Je­mal was pur­su­ing his pas­sion, my other clients were pur­su­ing money.”

BY JAMES M. THRESHER — THE WASH­ING­TON POST

De­vel­oper Douglas Je­mal, a Brook­lyn na­tive, ben­e­fited from a huge out­pour­ing of sup­port from his adopted com­mu­nity be­fore his sen­tenc­ing for wire fraud.

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