Monday, August 30, 2010

Money and Faith

The admonition from Nat Hentoff  for reporters to do their job on uncovering all aspects of the mosque story, is now being picked up-as the press disenthralls itself from Mike Bloomberg's liberal homilies. In Saturday's NY Daily News, the paper begins to do a background on the money man behind the mosque-and this initial foray begins to raise some interesting questions: "Years before his latest real-estate project ignited an uproar, Sharif El-Gamal racked up at least seven run-ins with the law, including a bust for patronizing a prostitute. "I regret many things that I did in my youth. I have not always led a perfect life," El-Gamal, 37, said in a statement to the Daily News. His most recent arrest was for a Sept. 10, 2005, assault on a barber who sublet a Manhattan apartment from El-Gamal's brother, Sammy."

Perhaps a tale of redemption? Perhaps not-it seems that Gamal's past and current status present a rather murky picture: "If his 2008 cries of poverty were genuine, El-Gamal experienced a dramatic reversal of fortune a year later, scoring a $39 million mortgage to buy a W. 27th St. commercial building. He had a partner, Egyptian-born businessman Hisham Elzanaty, who co-signed the loan. Elzanaty denied to discuss his dealings with El-Gamal. In a deposition for the Vassiliev suit, El-Gamal testified he worked as a waiter from 1997 to 2001 when he "moved onto greener pastures."

Maybe he hit the lottery. Maybe not: "In 2002, he became a commercial real estate broker and started his own company, Soho Properties, a year later. El-Gamal began amassing a property portfolio in 2007, snatching up and managing apartment buildings in Harlem and Washington Heights. He bought the property where he plans to build a $100 million Islamic cultural center, two blocks from Ground Zero, for nearly $5 million in July 2009."

But the News expose leaves out a Chelsea property that Gamal bought for $45 million. As Fox Five News reports: "With credit super tight, and prices plummeting, he paid $45 million for a 12-story commercial building in Chelsea that sold three years earlier for $31 million."It seems like a lot of pay in a downturn, considering it went for considerably less during the boom," said Stuart Elliott, the editor of Real Deal magazine. El-Gamal, the waiter turned mogul, plunked down another $5 million as down payment on the Chelsea building. "Something's up with that deal," Ken Brandman said. "Unless someone gave him a lot of money, or he won the lottery, than somebody else put up the money."

And then there is his background-as the Daily News points out: "He pleaded guilty in 1994, 1998 and 1999 to disorderly conduct in Manhattan. He also pleaded guilty to disorderly conduct in 1990, DWI in 1992 and attempted petit larceny in 1993, Nassau County prosecutors said. Details were unavailable, but a source confirmed a 1994 arrest for patronizing a prostitute. El-Gamal says he's a different man now."

And then there's this from the NY post. It appears that Gamal has more issues: "The mosque developers are tax deadbeats. Sharif El-Gamal, the leading organizer behind the mosque and community center near Ground Zero, owes $224,270.77 in back property tax on the site, city records show. El-Gamal's company, 45 Park Place Partners, failed to pay its half-yearly bills in January and July, according to the city Finance Department. The delinquency is a possible violation of El-Gamal's lease with Con Edison, which owns half of the proposed building site on Park Place. El-Gamal owns the other half but must pay taxes on the entire parcel."

Perhaps he is a changed man, but to say, as Mike Bloomberg has, that it doesn't matter who is behind the mosque, or where the money is coming from, is staggeringly irresponsible. And Gamal the deadbeat comes off as someone who wouldn't be too choosy about the source of funds. So the money trail-even if it doesn't lead to the usual Islamist terror funding sources-should be followed assiduously by the press.

And the same goes for Mike Bloomberg's sudden tolerance epiphany. We all know how the press has given the mayor a total pass on how he uses his money for political self-aggrandizement-and the same hear and see no evil approach is being taken on the mayor's possible ulterior motives.

Mondo Frazier raises some intriguing questions on what just might be prompting the mayor to undertake such a reversal on his normal approach to ethical and moral questions:

"Call us cynical but we wonder whether Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s passionate backing of the building of a controversial mosque near Ground Zero stems as much from Bloomberg’s belief in America’s “freedom of faith” as it might from the Mayor’s belief in the “virtues of Islamic finance?”

Does the Mayor’s unshakable support have anything to do with The Bloomberg (company) becoming a ‘single provider of information that caters to the Islamic business market’? A Bloomberg five-year business plan for an Islamic finance portal via a Bloomberg hub at the Dubai International Financial Centre (DIFC) is already a reality."

Frazier asks an important question-one that the Saturday WSJ exploration of the mayor's religious background elides: "While Bloomberg hasn’t been shy about questioning the motives of those opposed to the mosque’s location, the media has shied away from the Mayor‘s motivations. But what of the Mayor’s motives? What might they be? Does a strong passion for religious liberty explain all?"

There's a lot on intriguing plots and subplots going in the mosque controversy, and it is about time that all  of the media begin to do their job-keeping the cynicism and skepticism meter at the ready; and not just for the usual "right wing Republican" suspects. In our experience, when it comes to NY real estate the only core principle one should have is, "it's all about the money."