- The Washington Times - Thursday, October 19, 2006

An attorney for prominent D.C. developer Douglas Jemal said yesterday that expensive gifts, trips and tickets the defendant had given to a public official were not bribes and that federal prosecutors had mischaracterized his “exchange of hospitality.”

“We believe they never got Douglas, they never got Douglas Development, and we believe that they left misimpression after misimpression after misimpression,” said Reid Weingarten, Mr. Jemal’s lead attorney, during closing arguments yesterday.

Mr. Jemal, his son Norman and Douglas Development Corp. leasing official Blake Esherick are facing charges that they gave a D.C. official $25,000 and gifts for favorable leasing deals with the District.

Michael Lorusso, former deputy in the D.C. Office of Property Management (OPM), pleaded guilty last year to bribery charges and cooperated with prosecutors, testifying against the three defendants in U.S. District Court this month.

Prosecutors say the bribes included a gold Rolex watch, $1,000 for two pairs of cowboy boots, hotel stays in Las Vegas and private box tickets to Washington Wizards and Washington Capitals games.

Mr. Weingarten acknowledged that the gifts were exchanged, but that they could not be associated with any corrupt intent or any specific instances of favorable treatment the developers received from Lorusso on behalf of the city.

The attorney pointed to examples supported by testimony in which Douglas Jemal gave employees or friends gifts of cash, interest-free loans or the use of his box seats at the Verizon Center.

“It really sounds like a corrupt organization based on greed,” he said, sarcastically referring to the prosecution’s theory of the case.

Mr. Weingarten said that Lorusso had struck up a genuine friendship with Mr. Esherick and that the city employee lionized Douglas Jemal and desperately wanted to join his inner circle.

“Michael Lorusso wanted in at [Douglas Development Corp.] far more than the DDC guys wanted in at OPM,” he said.

Mr. Weingarten also said that the prosecution did not mention that the gift-giving had been reciprocal, with Lorusso purchasing two pairs of sunglasses at $1,600 apiece for Douglas Jemal and Mr. Esherick. The attorney also noted that Lorusso bought Douglas Jemal a $500 shirt from a Tommy Bahama store.

The defense attorney said that prosecutors were politically motivated in pursuing the case and that Lorusso’s testimony was an attempt to win a lighter sentence.

Lorusso faces a maximum sentence of 71 months.

Douglas and Norman Jemal each face 40 years in prison, and Mr. Esherick faces 45 years if convicted.

The defendants also are accused of tax evasion and conspiracy to commit wire fraud.

The defense is expected to continue its closing arguments this morning.

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