NEW ORLEANS -- Eyewitness Investigates has obtained and had translated an explosive Arabic audio recording that could offer key evidence in a Louisiana State Police insurance fraud investigation.
It’s part of a story we’ve followed for months, involving a years-long gas station property dispute in Gentilly – one that also involved threats of violence, alleged payments to beat up customers and the firebombing in June 2010 of the Fuel Zone convenience store.
At the center of it all is Omar Hamdan, the former owner of the B-Xpress gas station at Chef Highway and Louisa Street, across from the Fuel Zone.
Louisiana State Police is now investigating allegations that Hamdan staged a burglary at his own store last August, during Hurricane Isaac.
Hamdan stood to collect hundreds of thousands of dollars in insurance proceeds from the two stores he owned on the property at the time, the B-Xpress and the MAC Beauty store next door.
The insurance claims cited damage from the storm, an alleged break-in and losses for purportedly stolen merchandise like cigarettes and beauty supplies.
In a conversation secretly recorded on April 8, Hamdan tells his tenant that the authorities and Eyewitness News are closing in, and he pleads with him to lie about the burglary.
"Keep on lying, man, or else you will get yourself in trouble,” Hamdan tells Noma Abel, the current owner of the MAC Beauty store. “You have to say it. You have to do this, and now is the best time.”
Abel is the one who recorded the conversation, which is mostly in Arabic, and he provided it to Eyewitness News. We, in turn, sent it to a service in the Middle East for translation.
‘Fraud…seven years in prison’
Back in January, Hamdan had his store manager, Tareq Kahok, arrested and charged with the burglary.
But after Scott Wolfe, the man who has been fighting with Hamdan over ownership of the property – provided authorities with photos and other evidence in the case, District Attorney Leon Cannizzaro’s office dropped the burglary charge against Kahok.
Kahok remains jailed in Florida on unrelated charges, but during Isaac he took pictures of employees putting cigarettes and other merchandise into bags. Abel said that he rode with Hamdan in an SUV as they took the merchandise to one of Hamdan’s other convenience stores.
Abel told investigators and Eyewitness News that he saw Hamdan himself smash glass at the Boost Mobile, another store on the same Chef and Louisa property. Abel said Hamdan directed him and others to break through windows and interior walls and to use a hose to spray water from the ceilings.
But the story they told police and insurance adjusters is that someone else broke in and tunneled through the other stores.
In the Arabic recording, Hamdan lowers his voice to tell Abel that they could get seven years in prison for fabricating the break-in: "See cousin, listen to me. Do you know how many years you could be in prison for this? This is fraud. It could be seven years for breaking into the shop.”
‘He did it!’
Then, Hamdan raises his voice again:
"What is wrong with you? You need to get tough like me. I could break the glass of your car with you in front of me and say, 'I didn't break it.' Listen, look at me; look at me. I don't give a (expletive)! Look at me. (Expletive) no! He did it! Be like me. Say, 'You did it, (expletive)!'"
Hamdan expresses frustration throughout the recording that Abel doesn’t seem to know what to say to lawyers and investigators.
"Tell him, 'We came in, the windows already were cracked,'" Hamdan implores Abel, in English this time.
When Abel says he is worried about insurance fraud and law enforcement, Hamdan laughs and says the local authorities will never notice them with the city's big crime problem.
"Cousin, the law? Listen, listen. The law? There are 1,000 murders. They have heroin in the prison. You know? Did you see the prison? They dance and drink beer inside the prison. Have you seen the news?” Hamdan asks Abel, referring to the infamous video of inmates living it up inside Orleans Parish Prison.
"Listen, if they can't control those inside the prison, are they going to worry about you or me over here?" he adds, laughing heartily.
When we asked Hamdan's attorney, Bob Harvey, about the insurance claims, he said his clients, Omar Hamdan and his then-wife, Fatmah, didn't make any claim.
“And let me make it perfectly clear: The insurance claim was made by Noma Abel,” Harvey said. “There was a claim made by Tareq (Kahok), he handled the initial claim, but we looked at it carefully and we're not satisfied with it so my clients are not submitting that claim.”
The claims may have been submitted by Abel and Kahok, who at the time were the managers of the B-Xpress and MAC Beauty stores, respectively, but the owners of those stores were the Hamdans.
We have copies of several checks, showing that Omar Hamdan collected at least $170,000 from Colony Insurance Co. for theft and damage at the MAC Beauty alone.
Fight with Scott Wolfe
Hamdan is a twice-convicted felon and has been accused of violence by several former employees.
And Abel said that Hamdan hit him when they were meeting at Harvey's office. Abel said that’s when Hamdan found out that Abel had been acting as a double agent, taping their conversations and sharing them with Scott Wolfe.
Wolfe once owned a Wagner’s Meats store at the Chef and Louisa location, as well as the surrounding real estate, but he sold it in 2008 to Hamdan – inadvertently, Wolfe claims – and has been fighting Hamdan in court to get it back ever since.
"These allegations against Omar Hamdan are consistent with Scott Wolfe's contrived agenda to challenge title to the property by manipulating the public records,” said Harvey’s attorney and co-counsel in the Hamdan matter, Justin Zitler.
Shortly before the 2010 firebombing of the Fuel Zone across the street, Wolfe presented the court with a fax of a 2003 document that was never placed in the public land records. It was notarized by state Rep. Ray Garofalo, and it purports to show that Wolfe had already sold the Chef Highway property long before he transferred anything to Hamdan.
Harvey said that document by Garofalo is a forgery. Garofalo, meanwhile, swears to its authenticity.
In the recording Abel made, Hamdan complains that Harvey has charged him hundreds of thousands of dollars to defend the property from Wolfe’s challenges.
And more recently, Harvey actually stepped in to buy three of Hamdan's gas stations, so they could keep their alcohol and tobacco permits.
“Bob has taken it upon himself to clean up the management of the stores," Zitler said.
At one point in the recording, Hamdan says he sought Harvey's blessing to hit Wolfe.
"I asked Bob, 'Can I hit him?' He said, 'After we get through the case. I'll tell you when,'" Hamdan says to Abel.
Violence out of frustration
We confronted Harvey and Zitler about their client's violent words.
“That has got to be out of context, Number 1,” Harvey said.
“Number 2, you don't hear my voice. And Number 3, it was Mr. Hamdan who was slammed in the head with a brick and spent five days in ICU with brain damage.”
He is referring to an attack in January by hooded men that was captured on the store’s surveillance video. Scott Wolfe has denied having anything to do with the attack.
Zitler said the violence that has stemmed from this property fight between Wolfe and Hamdan is borne of frustration.
“If (Hamdan) said (that he wanted approval to hit Wolfe) it would be in terms of a figure of speech. Not literally,” Zitler said.
“We don't advocate violence. We're lawyers. We go into court. We settle things by lawsuits – hopefully, in one court, not in a multitude of forum-shopped courts, as do our opponents. We do not resort to violence. We understand there has been violence since 2010, you yourself have reported on it on Eyewitness News. But there's more to this violence. It stems from the frustration people feel with the judicial system not moving fast enough.”