Jemal’s Good Works Pay Rich Dividend
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.”
Developer Douglas Jemal, a Brooklyn native, benefited from a huge outpouring of support from his adopted community before his sentencing for wire fraud.