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Going After the Wrong Guy: The Jemal Case

Doug Jemal, the feisty original who's behind the renaissance of many Washington neighborhoods, got off yesterday, in a jury decision that was as predictable and obvious as the District's climb back into vibrancy as an urban center.

Jemal, the developer who put his money and his energy into places that virtually no one else dared to during the city's most depressed years, was acquitted of bribery charges, though the jury found him guilty of a lesser charge of wire fraud. Watching the jury earlier in the trial, it was easy to see that they weren't buying the prosecutors' overblown case--this was the classic instance of prosecutorial overkil.

Prosecutors not only overreached, but aimed their firepower at the wrong target. Jemal, never one to care much about rules and expectations, has always worked the system and worked the pols to get his projects through and to get sweet deals with the city government. Did he break laws while cutting corners? Perhaps, but what this case centered on was the actions not so much of a rogue developer as of a rogue city official, Michael Lorusso, the former director of Washington's Office of Property Management, who thought nothing of taking all manner of gifts from Jemal and friends, including cash, fancy meals, luxurious trips to Las Vegas, and a Rolex.

The government's chief concern from the start should have been to root out and punish the bad guys within its own ranks, but instead the authorities cut a deal with Lorusso and went after Jemal. Result: Jemal walks, and Lorusso, rather than being severely punished for his abuse of his position, will get off lightly. He still faces a prison term of 57 to 71 months under federal sentencing guidelines, but Lorusso is far more likely to get a much lesser sentence because he cooperated with prosecutors.

I don't condone Jemal's abuses--some of the deals he's made over the years with the city smacked of preferential treatment and unnecessarily big returns for the developer. But I look forward to seeing where his sense of adventure takes him next, and what he does with unique properties such as the Uline Arena, the sad old shell of a building alongside Union Station where the Beatles first played Washington and where the District itself couldn't come up with a use better than filling the place with trash. Or what he does with the large chunks of the Anacostia River waterfront that Jemal controls and hopes to turn into something to compete with Baltimore's Inner Harbor.

This city is a very rough playground for creative and daring dreamers--builders are regularly ground down and dismissed by the narrow-minded bureaucrats of the Commission on Fine Arts, the federal and local planning and preservation boards, and the National Park Service. Jemal has found ways to persevere, and while some of his projects languish or don't particularly inspire, his work on Seventh Street in the East End, around the old Woodies building, and in residential neighborhoods all around the city has encouraged other developers to pump money into Washington and is as responsible for the city's comeback as is Mayor Tony Williams. I'm glad Jemal will be around to build some more.

By Marc Fisher |  October 26, 2006; 4:12 PM ET
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Wow. Why don't you just coronate Jemal the king of DC?

This guy is a parasite, plain and simple.

Its like that line from The Wire, an amazing TV show based in our neighbor city of Baltimore.

"Stringer Bell's worse than a drug dealer. He's a developer..."

Posted by: the cheat | October 26, 2006 4:09 PM

Great post, Marc. Thanks for this perspective.

Posted by: KK | October 26, 2006 5:32 PM

Great post, Marc. Thanks for this perspective.

Posted by: KK | October 26, 2006 5:32 PM

Name calling (thanks the cheat) aside, I agree with your assessment of the situation wholeheartedly, Marc. Jemal has done great things for our city, and the real crooks are guys like Lorusso who cheat the taxpayers for profit.

Posted by: jumbo | October 26, 2006 5:35 PM

One more vote of support.
Great post - indeed, it appears that Jemal is doing great things for the city...too bad he must deal with corrupt government official(s?).
"a parasite" seems a "little" harsh - it wasn't Jemal's idea to steer contracts his way; if the government deciders have no integrity, it's not Jemal's fault.

Posted by: RJ | October 26, 2006 6:37 PM

Isn't bribery a two-party affair? If Lorusso is guilty of receiving bribes, doesn't there have to be someone who was paying those bribes? Marc, are you asking us to accept that while it was wrong for Lorusso to be the recipient, it was not wrong to be the donor?

I just don't get it.

Posted by: DC taxpayer | October 26, 2006 9:41 PM

Jemal was being shaken down. "You know, Doug, if I had a real nice Rolex I could get a better idea of how long those plans of yours have been held up in the system and how long it's going to take for them to get approved. Or not."

Posted by: Stick | October 27, 2006 5:52 AM

Wait a minute - let me see if I've got something straight here.

There's an arena next door to Union Station (hugely metro-accessible) that once hosted a Beatles concert. Said arena is currently being used as a trash dump.

What the @#%^? How did this sorry state of affairs come about?

Posted by: Arlington, VA | October 27, 2006 7:53 AM

I don't justify what Jemal did either, but there's a good chance there was a certain amount of shakedown by DC officials going on, and Jemal pretty much had to respond to get things done. But that lease the city wrote him for the impound lot was obscene. But, then, the city accepted it, so apparently they thought it was fine.

Jemal invested in this city when no one else would. We owe a lot to this guy. I remember how it was to buy property in DC in the 90s. It was a huge gamble. And the DC government, rather than helping, seemed intent on blocking you every step of the way.

Jemal had vision, and we can thank him for the preservation of a ton of beautiful buildings that the city would have eventually managed to destroy.

As for the anti-developer sentiments above, I can begin to express how short-sided that is. DC in the 90s was largely a cesspool of crime and decrepit neighborhoods, and apparently the DC government thought the city could survive just fine with just the tax revenue of nail salons and liquor stores, plus the taxes of Georgetown residents. Without developers, that would still be the case. Now, thanks in large part to the much-maligned developer, DC is becoming the world-class city it should be.

Posted by: Hillman | October 27, 2006 8:26 AM

Wow Marc, I didn't realize you were such a big Jemal fan. As I stated yesterday, money and connections once again triumphs over justice. Even though I usually like your columns, I think you're way off base on this one, Marc.

Posted by: clevelandparker | October 27, 2006 8:48 AM

Jemal brought Fuddruckers and Starbucks to Chinatown, while the Chinese grocery that had been there forever is now closed. Like that vision? I don't.

He owns tons of property in my town, Riverdale Park, MD, and while he enjoys God knows what "vision" for its future, he is content to leave most of the town's commercial property vacant. He pushed out a charming little used bookstore/ coffeeshop/ rare venue for live local musicians and poets and painters. He apparently thinks our town can survive just fine without even the tax revenue of a nail salon or a liquor store (which might at least be locally-owned businesses!).

EYA, now that's a visionary developer. Right next door in Hyattsville, they're doing wonderful things. Jemal, meanwhile, can burn in Hell!

Posted by: not a Jemal fan | October 27, 2006 9:10 AM

Just goes to show that even a developmental magician like Jemal can't do anything with MD towns.

Posted by: Stick | October 27, 2006 9:19 AM

Marc, just curious how your wife feels about all this? Wasn't she a prosecutor?

Posted by: Mark with a K | October 27, 2006 10:29 AM

Marc:

I've now no doubt that, just as you've admitted favoring controversial political candidates, you also favor controversial developers.

But someone already correctly mentioned that bribery is a two-party affair. Lionizing our local larger-than-life figures neither a responsible nor an appropriate response to a matter that is reducible to acts of corrupt greed and graft. Particularly when such acts involve our public dollars and assets.

But in both cases, this favoritism seems to me reflective of selfishly misplaced priorities. This column disappoints me.

Posted by: Mark | October 27, 2006 11:03 AM

interesting character or not, if you have any Gov't interest at heart, what he did was wrong. yes the employee needs to get his due days in jail. But this takes two to tango.

Posted by: Anonymous | October 27, 2006 11:51 AM

Arlington, Va's post shows much of what is so wrong with the constant criticism of DC from dilenttantes who like to hear themselves talk. This guy a) doesn't know enough about the city to know Uline Arena exists and b) seems to have taken Marc's remark literally and thinks it's beside Union Station and the Metro station there.

This person also doesn't know enough about the evolution of sports facilities to realize we're lucky that it's still there to be re-developed.

There ought to be an ESPN style "Just Shut Up award," for these people.

Posted by: WC | October 27, 2006 12:39 PM

Marc,
Well, you certainly will be excused, for cause, if you are in the jury pool for Jemal's nexttime. And there will be a next time, if he continues his current operating procedure.

Posted by: A Hardwick | October 27, 2006 12:41 PM

Misjudging a White-Collar Trial in D.C.
Saturday, October 7, 2006; Page A21


As a longtime practicing lawyer and adjunct law professor, I thought it was inappropriate for Marc Fisher to write, and The Post to publish, his column arguing that the ongoing Douglas Jemal trial is unimportant. He called the trial a waste of time and an imposition on taxpayers ["In Two D.C. Courtrooms, Very Different Quests for Justice," Metro, Oct. 3].

Fisher acknowledged talking to Jemal during the trial and then wrote what a wonderful person Jemal is and praised his contributions to the city. He followed that up with a prediction that Jemal would be acquitted.


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Fisher appeared to be an ad hoc member of the defense team who is trying to influence the trial and has no concern for issues involving the integrity of city government. Is this a proper use of the power of journalism?

I know nothing about the merits of the Jemal case, and my heart goes out to the victims of the tragic case involving Princess Hansen, which was joined to the Jemal case in Fisher's column, presumably to emphasize what is really important. But I do know I have read my last Marc Fisher column.

-- Peter R. Sherman

Washington


Posted by: Just reposting a previous letter from someone else | October 27, 2006 12:47 PM

Misjudging a White-Collar Trial in D.C.
Saturday, October 7, 2006; Page A21

As a longtime practicing lawyer and adjunct law professor, I thought it was inappropriate for Marc Fisher to write, and The Post to publish, his column arguing that the ongoing Douglas Jemal trial is unimportant. He called the trial a waste of time and an imposition on taxpayers ["In Two D.C. Courtrooms, Very Different Quests for Justice," Metro, Oct. 3].

Fisher acknowledged talking to Jemal during the trial and then wrote what a wonderful person Jemal is and praised his contributions to the city. He followed that up with a prediction that Jemal would be acquitted.

Fisher appeared to be an ad hoc member of the defense team who is trying to influence the trial and has no concern for issues involving the integrity of city government. Is this a proper use of the power of journalism?

I know nothing about the merits of the Jemal case, and my heart goes out to the victims of the tragic case involving Princess Hansen, which was joined to the Jemal case in Fisher's column, presumably to emphasize what is really important. But I do know I have read my last Marc Fisher column.

-- Peter R. Sherman
Washington

Posted by: Just reposting a previous letter from someone else, again | October 27, 2006 12:55 PM

Jemal was acquitted. He's not guilty. So why do you posters -- the cheat, DC taxpayer, cleavelandporker, Mark, anonymous, A Hardwick -- pretend he was guilty? Doesn't "not guilty" mean anything to you six? I presume you each have your own petty reasons for disliking him, but that doesn't make him a criminal.

Posted by: KK | October 27, 2006 2:51 PM

Hey KK -- no one on this post said he was "guilty." We merely expressed doubt about his innocence. Not necessarily the same thing, although it could be. And it's "clevelandparker," not "cleavelandporker."

Posted by: clevelandparker | October 27, 2006 4:01 PM

Re "it takes 2 to tango"

True, it does seem like a bribe must have occurred in order for someone to plead guilty to taking it. The problem here is the judge who allowed Lorusso to plead guilty to a crime that hadn't actually been determined to have occurred. Presumably Lorusso's lawyers advised him to take the deal because a bribery accusation was the least serious of the charges that prosecutors proposed. A more just deal would have allowed Lorusso to plead guilty to bribery IF Jamal was convicted, with the other charges back on the table if a jury wasn't convinced that a bribe occurred.

Posted by: GJ | October 27, 2006 6:34 PM

WC - Actually the Uline arena is quite close to Union Station. True, not literally next door, but certainly within walking distance, less than six blocks or so. For all practical purposes, it is alongside Union Station.

Posted by: Hillman | October 27, 2006 7:38 PM

Kalorama Kat:

You do continue a to be proud of your credulity, don't you.

Posted by: Mark | October 28, 2006 5:06 PM

From Monday's WP:
"emal "is making it seem like he got off, but in fact he got convicted of a felony," said Jeffrey A. Taylor, U.S. attorney for the District of Columbia. "Our view is this was a significant victory in a tough, hard-fought case."

The wire fraud charge, Taylor said, was "the most serious of the charges . . . because it has the highest statutory maximum of prison time" -- 20 years. Under federal sentencing guidelines, Jemal's sentence could be much lighter, possibly nothing more than probation. But Taylor said "it is certainly conceivable he will receive prison time." Sentencing is scheduled for April 16."

Posted by: Mark | October 30, 2006 9:11 AM

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