MYFOXNY.COM – by CHARLES LEAF: While Imam Faisal Abdul Rauf has dominated headlines about the proposed cultural center and mosque near Ground Zero in lower Manhattan, developer Sharif el-Gamal, 37, is actually the central figure behind the project.
If he has nothing to hide why can't he answer some simple straightforward questions? Why is it we have to have tolerance... but he can't "tolerate" a simple question?
Naturally, we wanted to talk to Sharif el-Gamal to learn more about the man and his plans, but apparently he didn't want to meet us. We made repeated requests for a sit down interview with him, left him multiple voice mail messages and he never returned any of our calls. We even went to his office and talked to colleagues, but we were turned away. He left us with no choice: We had to go find him.
El-Gamal is an American Muslim reportedly born to a Polish mother and an Egyptian father. He was raised in Brooklyn.
Today, el-Gamal's company, Soho Properties, owns the building where arguably the most controversial mosque in the world will be built. He bought the old Burlington Coat Factory building at 45 Park Place, two blocks from the World Trade Center site, for $4.8 million in cash in 2009.
We asked him where he got the money to put down on the property, but he stayed silent when we approached him.
Again how do you go from waiter to paying $4.8 million in cash?
His newfound notoriety was an extraordinary leap from his not-too-distant days as a waiter at Serafina, a trendy Upper East Side eatery, and at Michael's, an upscale celebrity-filled restaurant packed with a veritable who's who in media.
El-Gamal's former restaurant bosses and co-workers told Fox 5 that the young and opportunistic el-Gamal thrived on the buzz from bumping elbows with marquee names and relished the opportunity to schmooze the high dollar clientele.
"Customers would come in and ask for him, he had his regulars," said Cosmo Sammarone, a Serafina waiter.
El-Gamal left Serafina in 2002 and started selling real estate. But in just a year, he went from broker to business owner and launched his own real estate company, Soho Properties, in 2003. Records show he is the president and chief executive officer.
A long-time associate of his says el-Gamal isn't quite who he seems to be. The associate asked Fox 5 to protect his identity because he fears retribution.
"I was pretty much in shock when I saw him on the news as the developer," the associate said. "What I can say about Sharif is nothing good.
He said el-Gamal liked living in the fast lane, meeting celebrities in the restaurants were he worked, and partying with them at nightclubs.
"Very persuasive, master manipulator," he said of el-Gamal.
Today, el-Gamal's holdings included at least four buildings in Manhattan, including the site near Ground Zero, one in Chelsea, and two residential buildings in Washington Heights, where tenants seem to like him.
Records show el-Gamal bought the Washington Heights properties in 2007 for a little less than $3 million each.
Ken Brandman, president of N.Y. Commercial Real Estate Services, knows el-Gamal well. He, too, was a bit surprised to hear el-Gamal is the developer in the mosque near Ground Zero.
"I don't think he has a lot of money," Brandman said. "I'm sure he didn't buy it with his own money."
Soho Properties bought the site for the mosque for $4.8 million in cash. Just four months later, with Manhattan's real estate market collapsed, el-Gamal made an even bigger deal.
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."
Fox 5 News has learned that el-Gamal did have help from a man named Hisham Elzanaty. Mortgage documents show that Elzanaty is the guarantor on the $39 million loan el-Gamal's company secured to buy the building.
We repeatedly asked El-Gamal where he raised the money, where it was coming from, but he refused to answer our questions and run from us. He also did not answer the question of whether he would consider relocating the mosque
Sharif El-Gamal has a history of at least seven run-ins with the law, including a 1994 bust for patronizing a prostitute.
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.
The brothers and another man went to the apartment that afternoon to retrieve back rent from Mark Vassiliev, criminal and civil court records show.
El-Gamal allegedly cursed at Vassiliev, called him the Arabic curse word "sharmouta" and punched him in the face, breaking his nose and cheekbones.
When he was arrested, El-Gamal denied he socked Vassiliev, but conceded, "[Vassiliev's] face could have run into my hand," court papers say.
"I am in real estate. I'm rich. Why would I do this? Why would I jeopardize my career? I'm not a thug," he told cops.
He was charged with misdemeanor assault and harassment. Charges were dropped in 2007 after Vassiliev sued.
El-Gamal eventually settled the civil case for $15,000 - and the 2008 negotiations provided a glimpse into his finances.
Vassiliev's lawyer, Erik L. Gray, said there was no indication El-Gamal had assets beyond a $1.1 million upper West Side pad he owned with his wife.
Even after El-Gamal inked the deal, he was slow to pay and the matter ended up in mediation - where his lawyer, Marshall Isaacs, told Gray there were money problems.
"He had told me [El-Gamal] was struggling financially and was having trouble coming up with the payment," Gray said. "It was based on the fact that he was in real estate and the real estate market was depressed."
El-Gamal agreed to fork over $1,360 in interest and fees but paid up in installments, Gray said.
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.
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."
The son of a bank executive, El-Gamal has said he turned to Islam after 9/11 and that his religious awakening followed a troubled youth.
Was that your reaction after 911?
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.
"My faith teaches me every day about humility. I have been humbled by my imperfections. But my faith also teaches me about forgiveness," he said in the statement.
"While I might not be proud of some of my actions in the past, I am extremely proud of the Park51 project and what it will mean to thousands of New Yorkers of all faiths and denominations who live in Lower Manhattan."
According to Raheel Raza, a founding member of the Muslim Canadian Congress, who recently argued in an oped and on the O’Reilly Factor that the GZ mosque is “a deliberate provocation”.
Last week, Raza and a Canadian 9/11 widow attended a meeting about the mosque in New York City.
“They were very arrogant. They didn’t answer questions,” Raza told QMI Agency.
The meeting was hosted by Daisy Khan, the wife of the imam promoting the mosque and Sharif El Gamal, the man whose property firm owns the land the mosque is to be built on.
Raza says she asked questions about who was financing the building, estimated to cost $100 million, and whether any of the money would come from countries other than the U.S.
There has been speculation that the mosque is being funded through Saudi Arabian sources, but at the Manhattan meeting Raza said there were no answers.
On Monday, back in Toronto, Raza says she received a call from a man who identified himself as Sharif El Gamal. “His tone was intimidating,” said Raza. “He accused me of ‘jumping into’ the meeting he called and then said ‘May Allah protect you.’ I was shocked and hung up.”
Raza says El Gamal’s tone was threatening and she took the phone call as a clear threat against her and not as some claim, a casual phrase meaning goodbye.
“Why would I need Allah’s protection?” asked Raza.
El Gamal told the Niagara Falls Review on their second attempt at an interview that “there was no phone call made by anybody” before again hanging up.