NEW ORLEANS -- Heated accusations and a tangled cast of characters made for high drama in an unlikely setting Tuesday. An administrative hearing on alcohol permits turned into a 10-hour soap opera that ended with the central figure getting hauled off to jail on fraud and bribery charges.
Months after WWL-TV raised questions about Omar Hamdan’s activities with various Gentilly area gas station convenience stores -- including allegations of insurance fraud, threats of violence and improperly obtained alcohol permits –- all of the key players came together for the first time at the hearing before state Alcohol and Tobacco Control Commissioner Troy Hebert.
Hamdan, whose felony firearm and cocaine convictions should have prohibited his wife’s businesses from ever holding alcohol permits, only showed up at the very end of the hearing, after Hebert had interviewed and strongly challenged testimony from seven witnesses.
Hamdan’s testimony was short and riveting.
“I feel like I own all of y’all right here, and I know all of y’all want to see me go down, but I mean, I don’t know why,” Hamdan said, gesticulating grandly.
His exit was even more dramatic. Agents blocked the doors as Louisiana State Police waited for Hamdan in the hallway. They arrested him and booked him on three counts of insurance fraud and a count of commercial bribery.
The charges stem from allegations made by a former Hamdan employee, Tareq Kahok, who was jailed on a burglary charge in January but claimed he was actually directed to remove merchandise from the store by Hamdan.
One of Hamdan’s tenants, Noma Abel, told WWL-TV and insurance investigators in June that Hamdan fabricated the break-in to collect insurance payments. Abel produced checks from his business bank records that were cashed and endorsed by Hamdan.
But even before Hamdan arrived, the alcohol permit hearing was testy enough.
Under Hebert’s withering questioning, Hamdan’s ex-wife, Fatmah, the legal owner of all the stores, dropped all pretenses that she ever truly ran the B-Xpress businesses. She testified that she didn’t read or understand the statement she signed to get the alcohol permit in the first place, in which she swore that her spouse was not a convicted felon.
“Whatever (attorney) Chris Young handed me papers to sign, I signed them,” Fatmah Hamdan testified. “I just handled the kids and the house, and he (Omar) handled the businesses.”
Later, when her husband showed up, he said, “I was just running the business for her; she kept track of the numbers.”
In April, Young argued to the ATC that Fatmah Hamdan didn’t believe she really was married and that’s why she said her spouse wasn’t a convicted felon. But the day before WWL-TV aired a story about the permit dispute, she filed for divorce, swearing they were married in 1998. At the hearing Tuesday, she admitted it was just to save the permit.
“After I knew that, you know, it was against the law, it wasn’t right that, you know, to be married with him and he got felony -- that’s gonna hurt the license, and that’s why I got divorced,” she said.
She claimed she didn’t know about her husband’s felony record until she saw it on the WWL report in April, even though she said his sister told her he had shot someone and he had to wear an ankle monitor.
When the ATC banned the Hamdans from holding liquor licenses or managing permitted stores for two years, the Hamdans flipped the stores to their nephew, a store clerk named Fady Abusaud. But then Hebert determined he was just a stand-in for the Hamdans.
“I don’t mind stating on the record, that simply you and your husband were trying to fool this office,” Hebert said.
That’s when the Hamdans’ lawyer Bob Harvey got involved. The former Orleans Levee Board chairman fronted the money for young Fady Abusaud to buy the businesses. When that didn’t work, Harvey bought the businesses instead, paying the $500,000 purchase price by canceling the $500,000 legal bill the Hamdans had already racked up with him.
Harvey promised Hebert at a previous hearing that the Hamdans would have nothing to do with the businesses. But there was a problem. One of the convenience store companies was also embroiled in a years-long real estate dispute with Omar Hamdan’s archenemy, Scott Wolfe. Hamdan needed to have the company for the real estate issue, and Harvey needed the Hamdans out of the corporate ownership for the alcohol permit. So they tried splitting the stock, saying that Fatmah Hamdan was 100-percent owner of the Class A stock and it held the real estate, and that Harvey was 100-percent owner of the Class B stock and it held the convenience store and liquor licenses.
When ATC agents said that wasn’t allowed, Harvey and Hamdan tried setting Fatmah Hamdan up as 5-percent owner. They placed him as president, then her, then him again.
Harvey said all the changes were his best efforts to comply with the ATC’s rules. But Hebert suggested Harvey knew what was going on from the beginning.
“Mr. Commissioner, I am offended that you would even look me in the eye and suggest that I lied to you and that commission,” Harvey said, later adding, “My point is you seem to be suggesting that somehow I’m trying to confuse you.”
“No, no, listen to me,” Hebert retorted. “I’m not going to suggest you confused me; you have confused me. ... You were able to confuse the issue, shall we say.”
Harvey argued the whole problem really rests with Wolfe, who is the one who first brought the insurance fraud and alcohol permit complaints to authorities and thousands of documents and dozens of secret recordings to WWL.
It was Wolfe’s own problematic real estate records that led to the land dispute with Hamdan in the first place. He said he thought he only sold one of his store properties to Hamdan in 2009, but the paperwork in the public record suggested Hamdan actually had a claim to two of Wolfe’s properties.
Wolfe said it was just an “error” and filed corrective papers as he fought in court to get the Chef Highway property back. Harvey argued that Wolfe was committing fraud to try to take Hamdan’s rightful property away.
The testimony at the hearing all seemed to favor Wolfe as defectors from Hamdan’s camp crossed over to his side and offered damning evidence purporting to show Hamdan and Abusaud still running the businesses instead of Harvey.
But Wolfe’s zeal cost him. He had written several affidavits for witnesses to sign, but when they testified at the hearing Tuesday, some of the facts didn’t match up. Wolfe himself testified that he never held an alcohol permit when he owned the store, then had to backtrack under Harvey’s cross-examination.
Hebert said it all hurt Wolfe’s credibility. And when Wolfe’s attorneys couldn’t stop him from insulting Harvey or chiming in with comments, Hebert held Wolfe in contempt.
An undercurrent of potential violence also filled the hearing room.
There was a firebombing in 2010 at the gas station across the street from the property Hamdan and Wolfe are fighting over, and WWL has documented the string of accusations since then. Wolfe is pursuing a protective order against Hamdan, saying he fears for his safety. At the end of the hearing, Hamdan glared at Wolfe, pointed at him and said, “Good luck.”
And one of the witnesses there to testify against Harvey, Rahman “Shaky” Rahman, made a few shocking allegations of his own. He said Omar Hamdan and his nephew Fady Abusaud “told me the same way we put Tareq in jail, we can put you in jail if we want to.”
And Rahman alleged that a man who wants to buy the disputed Chef Highway property was concerned about the deal falling through if Harvey loses his licenses and threatened to “do something about it” if Rahman told the truth at the hearing. That man, Nidal Jaber, was sitting just a few feet away when Rahman made the allegation.
ATC agents made Jaber leave the hearing room for a while after that, and Hebert said he wouldn’t let a witness he subpoenaed be intimidated.
“Never happened, sir. Never happened,” Jaber told WWL after the hearing. “Me and him (Rahman) were in the parking lot for an additional hour by ourselves. If I needed to do something to this man I could have did it right there and then, but we’re not that type of people.”