Douglas Jemal is not your prototypical, button-down developer.
He prefers jeans, cowboy boots and baseball caps and isn’t shy about using salty language.
Years ago, he taught a pet parrot — a bird he named “Eagle” — to say the mother of all bad words, the one that starts with an F and rhymes with luck.
And there was the time — the night before he was to meet with bankers to discuss financing his family’s bid to purchase the Baltimore Orioles baseball team — when he got into a fistfight with a fan sitting in the stands behind him at the stadium.
The flip side of Jemal is that he has a record of getting things done, including high-profile projects others thought unlikely or even impossible.
Jemal wouldn’t talk to Investigative Post but, during an interview in March with WGRZ, the Brooklyn native, who built a real estate empire in Washington, D.C, described himself as a “riverboat gambler” who isn’t planning to take his money with him but is committed to leaving his mark with signature buildings.
“I love to take things and put them back together again and make a big difference and I had the opportunity to do that in Buffalo,” the 79-year-old Jemal told WGRZ.
A deep dive on Doug Jemal
- Tuesday: His growing real estate empire, in Buffalo and elsewhere.
- Wednesday: Profile of a character and unconventional businessman.
- Thursday: His politics and campaign contributions.
Before becoming Western New York’s most aggressive and most talked-about developer, Jemal spent years selling electronics and rehabbing buildings in downtrodden neighborhoods in Washington. His journey to Buffalo included his unsuccessful bid to buy the Orioles and a criminal conviction that ultimately led to a pardon from President Donald Trump.
His manner and methods have drawn both praise and criticism. Some in the Washington community said when given the opportunity, he does the right thing; others say he’s been self-serving.
“I think he’s the type of person if he likes something, if he likes somebody and he believes in it, he’ll do it,” said Ronald Moten, co-owner of Check It Enterprises, a clothing store in D.C. that was involved in a community push to convince Jemal to donate land he owned for public use.
First stereos, then real estate
Jemal started in business as a retailer in the 1960s, operating a store called Bargaintown in Washington. He got into selling discount electronics and in 1976 joined two of his brothers — Marvin and Stephen — in founding Nobody Beats the Wiz, an electronics chain that had stores in New York City, Pennsylvania and New Jersey. Douglas Jemal sold his shares in the company to his family before the franchise went bankrupt in 1997.
In 1981, Jemal bought his first commercial property, a building on 7th Street NW in Washington. While recalling the story during a public appearance in February, Jemal said the owners of the building agreed to sell because they were tired of getting complaints about loud noise coming from his stereo shop when he rented the store.
“That’s how I got into real estate, by getting kicked out,” Jemal told the crowd. “I said no one’s going to fucking kick me out again and that’s why I’m here now.”
From his first real estate deal, Jemal built Douglas Development, a company that today boasts a portfolio of more than 180 properties, with holdings in Washington, Virginia, Maryland, Tennessee and, more recently, Western and Central New York.
Both of his sons, Norman and Matthew, are executives in Douglas Development and have been active in many of the company’s real estate deals, including several in Buffalo. Jemal is married and also has four daughters. Last year, the developer bought his second home in Buffalo, a five-bedroom mansion valued at $1.4 million on Nottingham Place.
Since buying the vacant Seneca One tower in downtown Buffalo in 2016, Jemal has steadily added to his Western New York portfolio. His holdings now include the Statler City Complex, the old Buffalo police headquarters building on Franklin Street, the former Hyatt Regency Buffalo hotel and the Boulevard Mall in Amherst.
He doesn’t appear to be done investing yet, having entered into talks to rent and reuse the Hotel Henry on the Richardson-Olmsted campus and expressed interest in arguably the city’s toughest reclamation project — the Central Terminal.
Over the years, Jemal has shown a willingness to put up a fight — and not just for properties he’s interested in.
In 1993, while the family’s bid to buy the Orioles was still under review by Major League Baseball, Jemal got into a brawl during the All-Star Game at Camden Yards in Baltimore with what one associate described as a “6-foot-4, 300-pound longshoreman in overalls with a ZZ top beard.”
The reason: “ZZ Top” wouldn’t stop swearing in the presence of children and then made the mistake of swearing at Jemal, too.
The incident reportedly happened a day before Jemal was set to meet with bankers interested in financing his family’s bid for the team. The Orioles were later sold to attorney Peter Angelos and a group of partners for $173 million.
“These guys just came down on us,” said Paul Millstein, one of Jemal’s closest advisors, who recalled the dustup during a 2017 interview with a Washington Post reporter. “It was a blur because it was coming from every angle.”
Jemal’s biggest fight came in the form of a legal battle.
A federal probe into his company’s business practices led to his indictment in 2005 on charges of bribery and wire fraud.
A jury convicted Jemal on the wire fraud charge but a judge, citing the developer’s charitable works, spared him jail time, ordering him instead to a sentence of five years probation and a fine.
At the start of his trial, the lead prosecutor in the case, assistant U.S. Attorney Mark Dubester, described Jemal as “little more than a common thief,” accusing him of falsifying lending documents and lavishing a public official with lavish gifts in exchange for “sweetheart” contracts with the city.
In return for what they described as “favorable treatment,” prosecutors alleged that Jemal, his son, Norman, and his company’s director of leasing, Blake Esherick, gave Washington’s former deputy director of Office of Property Management Michael A. Lorusso various items of value, including cash bribes; a Rolex wrist watch; repairs for Lorusso’s personal vehicle; a hotel room at the Bellagio Hotel in Las Vegas; airfare and hotel accommodations for a trip to Las Vegas; a purchase of an airline ticket for a Florida trip; and other items, including expensive cowboy boots, limousine service, and private box tickets for Washington Wizards and Washington Capitals games.
Federal authorities also charged Douglas Development’s former chief financial officer, John Brownell.
Lorusso pleaded guilty to two charges of bribery conspiracy under a deal with prosecutors. He was later sentenced to 180 days of home detention, three years supervised probation and 100 hours of community service.
Norman Jemal was acquitted on charges of conspiracy, bribery and fraud.
In 2007, Brownell pleaded guilty to tax evasion stemming from charges that he benefited from unreported income tied to a $270,000 line of credit disguised by Douglas Development as a loan repayment to a bank.
Esherick was found guilty on one count of wire fraud, stemming from what prosecutors described as a scheme to create a bogus leasing company aimed at obtaining $430,000 in leasing commissions from Morgan Stanley. Esherick was also found guilty of tax evasion. He was sentenced to eight months in prison.
As for Jemal himself, a jury convicted him on a charge of wire fraud, but cleared him of the more serious charges involving bribery and conspiracy. He was sentenced to five years probation and fined $175,000.
At sentencing, District Court Judge Ricardo Urbina noted that Jemal devoted “much of his adult life to good, charitable causes” and determined that it was “inconceivable” that he should impose jail time as a penalty.
“Being fair means being fair,” the judge said.
The case came full circle in January as Trump pardoned Jemal, who is reportedly close friends with Charles Kushner, a disbarred attorney and real estate developer who is the father of Trump’s son-in-law, Jared Kushner.
In the official White House statement announcing Trump’s pardon, Jemal was described as an “American businessman and philanthropist credited with rebuilding many urban inner cities in the United States. The statement also referenced Jemal’s work on various charitable causes, including the “rebuilding of churches prior to his conviction.”
Following the pardon, Jemal told the Buffalo News it made “no difference at all” in his life.
“I feel the same way I felt yesterday,” he said.
Ronald Moten understands full well what it’s like to negotiate with Jemal.
Last year, the anti-violence activist and owner of the clothing store Check It Enterprises joined in an effort to stop Jemal’s lawyers from kicking residents off a Douglas Development property known in Moten’s D.C. neighborhood as the “Secret Garden.”
Jemal’s lawyers wanted residents to vacate or pay rent for the site. But once Jemal got personally involved, his company did “the right thing,” Moten said. The property, valued at $160,000, is being signed over to Moten’s business for community use.
“I think he’s just somebody who, when he has the opportunity to do something good, he’s going to do it,” Moten said of Jemal.
Not everyone has walked away satisfied after negotiating with Jemal.
The Rev. Graylan Scott Hagler, who took part in failed talks to establish a halfway house for prisoners at one of Jemal’s properties, accused the developer of reneging on an agreed-upon deal amid pressure from D.C.’s political elite.
“What you find out is that he is a wheeler and dealer and he loves to ingratiate himself to groups as long as he needs those groups,” Hagler said. “When it comes down to the fact he’s made his money, he responds in a way where he doesn’t need you.”
Hagler, senior minister of Plymouth Congregational United Church of Christ, described Jemal as being “very tight” with D.C.’s political class and said he felt Jemal’s decision to scrap the prisoner re-entry program agreement reflected his willingness to reject the community’s interest to serve his own.
“He’s made a lot of money playing ball with these municipal governments,” Hagler said.
Western New York impact
With the projects already on his Western New York list projected to cost more than $400 million to complete, some observers privately question how Jemal — who has an estimated net worth of $150 million — can do it all.
Brendan Mehaffy, the executive director of Buffalo’s Strategic Planning Office, isn’t worried. So far, he said, Jemal has demonstrated “incredible belief” in the community and he expects the trend to continue and successes to follow.
“I think we’re fortunate to have him and the energy he brings. Locally, he’s really changing attitudes, I think, in a very healthy way for Buffalo,” Mehaffy said.
Beyond buying up real estate, Jemal has garnered plenty of good will.
After the Hotel Henry closed, Jemal offered to fully compensate couples whose wedding receptions were canceled there. He later took the lead on fundraising efforts aimed at repairing the U.S.S. Sullivans, a decommissioned destroyer that is in danger of sinking in the inner harbor at Buffalo’s Naval Park.
Gary Bickler, whose RP Oak Hill Building has done renovation work Seneca One, believes Jemal when he says he’s a “Buffalo guy” and thinks he truly has the community’s best interests at heart. He cited the developer’s work in refurbishing the tower as a prime example of his commitment.
“It’s fabulous,” Bickler said. “It’s truly a treasure. You take a look at it, it dominates our skyline. I can’t imagine that building not being vibrant again in Buffalo and I think Buffalo feels the same way.”
Local preservationist Tim Tielman, executive director of the Campaign for Greater Buffalo, disagrees.
Tielman admits he was never a fan of the design of the tower, built in 1969 as the headquarters for Marine Midland bank. He thinks Jemal’s work on the property is making it even less aesthetically pleasing and pedestrian friendly.
Tielman created a YouTube video offering a scathing critique of the Seneca One renovations, reserving his harshest criticism for the construction of a “nightmare” stone wall — an estimated 20 feet high — surrounding the tower’s outdoor plaza. Tielman said the wall “literally evokes fortifications” and should have been flagged by city planners when Jemal presented it because it fails to promote street-level activity and wouldn’t pass muster under “Urbanism 101.”
Tielman believes the re-worked tower has the potential to be the latest in a long line of development mistakes in Buffalo. He said it speaks to the city’s long-standing problem with letting developers with clout like Jemal set their own standards.
“It happens again and again,” Tielman said. “Periodically, someone comes forward and they are the miracle worker. It’s like the Wizard of Oz. People get blinded by the light and they subject the city to this stuff.”