The thuggish, in-your-face aspect of the desire to build a mosque at Ground Zero has by now been amply documented: belying their claims to be building it only to affect reconciliation and peace, mosque leaders have smeared all opponents of the mosque as racists and bigots and refused all entreaties to put their mosque elsewhere.
And the thuggishness goes way back, apparently. The waiter-turned-millionaire developer (a transformation not yet satisfactorily explained) Sharif El-Gamal has said that "when you beat up someone physically you get exercise & stress relief," and it appears he spoke from experience. And the questions about his finances grow more urgent.
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.
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."
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.
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.
He pleaded guilty in 1994, 1998 and 1999 to disorderly conduct in Manhattan....