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D.C. real-estate developer Douglas Jemal swears he doesn’t do lunch. But his choice of dinner companions drew quite a bit of scrutiny last Thursday afternoon from Ward 1 Councilmember Jim Graham. “Did you go to dinner with Mr. [Michael] Lorusso?” asked Graham, referring to D.C.’s former deputy director of the Office of Property Management (OPM).
Graham doesn’t preside over the D. C. Council’s social committee. As chair of the Subcommittee on Human Rights, Latino Affairs, and Property Management, Graham has been delving into one of the latest mayoral debaclesthe lease and potential sale to the District of a Jemal-owned property at 4800 Addison Road in Prince George’s County for use as an impound lot.
Graham began the inquiry back in October, after at-large council colleague and then-
mayoral candidate Carol Schwartz questioned why the city was planning to pay more than $12.5 million for a 37-acre lot that Jemal purchased for $1.5 million in 1998. Right now, the city leases the lot for $998,000 a year.
How did Jemal’s property value increase 733 percent over five years?
With a little boost from the city’s property-management folksthat’s how. A real-estate appraiser hired by the OPM testified to Graham that he had valued the lot between $4 million and $5 million, an assessment based on the city’s current lease payment. The appraiser further swore that he’d reported that figure to Lorusso, who had asked for a reappraisal based on the current lease plus a nine-year lease extension the city had with Jemal. That somehow upped the sale price to $12.5 million.
One problem: The nine-year lease extension never seemed to exist. The appraiser never saw it on paper. Jemal testified that he never knew about it (though he also swore he’d “buy that same thing again today for $12 million”). Ditto for OPM Director Timothy F. Dimond and other cabinet-level city officials who exchanged e-mails about executing the $12.5 million sale with Jemal.
To top it off, the city was preparing to gift-wrap the package with a historic Massachusetts Avenue NW firehouse, which it had offered to Jemal for a mere $350,000.
The mayor’s office withdrew emergency legislation that would have authorized the purchase less than an hour before Schwartz and Graham convened the joint public hearing on the land sale in October. It was just the sort of harried, crisis-management desperation that has become a hallmark of fuckups involving the administration of Mayor Anthony A. Williams. A few predictable steps followed:
Embarrassment. Schwartz exploited the planned sale as just another Williams ethics lapse. The sale was a sweetheart deal for Jemal, she charged.
Investigation. The council asked D.C. Auditor Deborah K. Nichols for an independent audit of the land deals. Nichols says she’ll release her findings soon.
Wishful thinking. For months, Williams aides sat quiet in hopes that the land-deal hoopla would just go away. Maybe Graham will get bogged down with the Metro fare increase! Maybe Schwartz will opt for early retirement!
The fall-guy selection. Lorusso was fired in January.
Alas, the administration’s strategy has earned it only another round of embarrassmentthis time in the form of a probe led by Graham, one of the mayor’s most dedicated allies.
“Do you know Mr. Lorusso socially?” Graham inquired of Jemal, who answered in the affirmative. “What did you do together that would constitute a social relationship?”
“Well, we didn’t go out socially as far as dating or that,” Jemal answered.
Graham had heard the buzz: Jemal and Lorusso had been spotted frequently together at places such as the Capitol Grille and Zola, a new restaurant/bar adjacent to the International Spy Museum. (Apparently Jemal prefers the chic spot over the stools at Legal Sea Foods or Ruby Tuesday, two chain establishments that the developer has placed in his 7th Street NW retail development across from the MCI Center.)
While city officials have been quick to point the finger at Lorusso, they have been less judgmental of Jemal. Caveat emptor, after all. A self-proclaimed lover of historic buildings, Jemal owns a lot of other important properties in downtown’s east end, including the old Woodward & Lothrop department store and chunks of real estate along 7th and F Streets NW.
He’s seen as a key ally in creating a “living downtown”and in attracting some of the 100,000 residents that Mayor Williams wants to help repopulate the city. “That’s what your goal is to see, our goal is to see, the city’s goal is to see: How do we make this a 24-hour city,” Jemal reminded Graham at one point. “It’s $8,000 or $9,000 that contributes to taxes for every resident we get to live in the city.”
Jemal has built quite a relationship with the Williams economic-development team. He rehabbed the historic Peoples Drug Building on New York Avenue NE. The building’s major tenants are the city’s Department of Employment Services and Department of Mental Health.
Jemal has also made a reputation in local real-estate circles as a hands-on manager. “I find him refreshing in the world of developers; he does his deals himself, person to person,” says Terry Lynch of the Downtown Cluster of Congregations. “When you’re dealing with Jemal properties, you’re dealing with Doug Jemal.”
So Jemal’s testimony on Thursday seemed a bit out of character. Jemal testified that he had little knowledge of the $12.5 million sale to the city. “I don’t know,” was his mantra during the hearing: He didn’t know about the emergency legislation. He didn’t know about the appraisal process. He didn’t know the specifics of the lease. “I don’t read leases,” he told Graham. “I’m acquisitions and development.”
Jemal said that the dinners always involved business talk, because Lorusso was his firm’s main contact on the project. “Was it always Michael Lorusso?” asked Graham.
“To the best of my knowledge, yes, it was,” responded Jemal.
“Was there no interaction with Timothy Dimond, who is the director of the office?” inquired Graham.
“I’ve met Timothy Dimond, but the daily interaction was with Michael Lorusso,” answered Jemal.
That struck LL as odd. On Jan. 2, Inauguration Day, after enduring hours of prayer and platitudes, LL needed a drink. So LL decided to follow the Williams econ-development crowd and ended up at Zola.
Jemal was sitting at a table with a few friends and associates, including son Norman Jemaland OPM Director Dimond, who made a hasty retreat after LL greeted the crowd. The Jemal clan quickly departed, too, leaving Anacostia Economic Development Corp. President Albert “Butch” Hopkins to work the bar.
“I’m not going to comment,” responded Jemal, when LL recently asked about the
Jan. 2 soiree.
THE CAPITAL GANG
Lately D.C. activists have been brainstorming about how to grab national attention for our city’s unique disenfranchisement, a subject that usually draws minimal comment from national political punditseven though many live right here. So D.C. democracy activist Tim Cooper proposed bucking New Hampshire for the first-in-the-nation primary. Ward 2 Councilmember Jack Evans’ bill to create a January primary passed unanimously in the council on Tuesday. And D.C. Delegate Eleanor Holmes Norton held a voting-rights town-hall meeting this week.
Yet when it comes to commanding a blowhard’s attention, nothing beats mother nature.
Last weekend, TV pundit and Ward 3 resident John McLaughlin made D.C. an issue on both of his programs, The McLaughlin Group and McLaughlin’s “One on One.” McLaughlin nicknamed D.C. the District of Calamity, citing the city’s recent snow-removal efforts, as well as its crime rate, its underperforming school system, and its scandal-ridden mayor. Williams, that is.
McLaughlin informed national viewers that the city had been paralyzed by the snowstorm and that snow emergency routes had been impassable. “If a terrorist airplane, let us say, had been shot down during that storm or immediately afterwards, and that plane had crashed, let us say in the Adams Morgan section of Washington, or any section, and emergency vehicles could not possibly get down the streets, and that situation continued for several days after the storm had ended, don’t you think that this is a matter for federal concern?” McLaughlin asked his guests, who included D.C. Watch Executive Director Dorothy Brizill and Rep. Tom Davis (R-Va.).
Three Mondays ago, LL looked for every excuse to avoid the Washington City Paper’s offices in Adams Morgan. But, alas, Columbia Road NW, 18th Street NW, and even, by late afternoon, the City Paper’s own Champlain Street NW had been plowed.
Apparently the trucks took a while to get to Woodland Drive NW, which is home to McLaughlin. The pundit seemed to take an interest in local affairs after complaining to city officials about the snow removal.
On Monday, Mayor Williams released a venomous attack on McLaughlin. “It is unfortunate that Mr. McLaughlin did not accept our offer to discuss his concerns about the District government in advance of taping the show,” said Williams in a press release. “He has done a disservice to this government, to the residents of the District of Columbia, and to his viewers.”
Yet Williams received support from across the ideological spectrum from the rest of The McLaughlin Group. Right-wing Washington Times editorial-page editor Tony Blankley said, “Mayor Williams is the best mayor we’ve had.”
LL reminds McLaughlin that he needs to shovel his walk within eight hours of a snowstorm.
•In the fall of 2000, Ward 4 council incumbent Charlene Drew Jarvis characterized challenger Adrian M. Fenty as a dangerously misinformed young man. “This is not the time for a kid and on-the-job training,” Jarvis chanted.
Apparently Fenty has matured quite a bit in the eyes of the Jarvis family: Fenty has announced that his predecessor’s nephew, Bill Jarvis, will serve as finance chair for his 2004 re-election bid. “I don’t know whose quote this is: ‘There are no permanent friends or permanent enemies in politics,’” says Bill Jarvis, who lives in Ward 4. “I’ve been friends with Adrian since he’s been in law school.”
“I don’t think there was anything that went beyond competitive campaigning,” adds Fenty. “I am as cordial with [Charlene Drew Jarvis] as I am with anyone.”
Former At-Large Councilmember Bill Lightfoot will serve as Fenty’s campaign chair. CP
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