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.
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