NEW ORLEANS -- A former Gentilly gas-station owner has been formally charged with insurance fraud, commercial bribery and extortion following a Louisiana State Police probe and a series of investigative reports on WWL-TV.
The case against Omar Hamdan focuses on insurance claims from Hurricane Isaac in September 2012, mostly at the B-Xpress gas station and attached laundromat, beauty store and mobile phone retailer at the corner of Chef Highway and Louisa Street.
That property was a bone of contention for years between Hamdan and another convenience store owner, Scott Wolfe, and tensions escalated after a spectacular firebombing of the competing Fuel Zone gas station across Chef Highway in 2010.
We have looked into the case for the last year and obtained recordings of Hamdan talking to his tenant in the beauty store, Noma Abel, about committing fraud even laughing as he says the police won't have time to worry about what they were doing with all the murders in town.
At the same time, Wolfe challenged Hamdan's wife's right to sell alcohol at three B-Xpress stores because of Omar Hamdan's felony convictions, and hearings before the state Alcohol and Tobacco Control led the Hamdans to transfer ownership in the convenience stores to their attorney, Bob Harvey.
Omar Hamdan is now free on $36,000 bond on the five counts, plus District Attorney Leon Cannizzaro said his office is still investigating other fraud and criminal damage allegations made against Hamdan by the state police.
Harvey, meanwhile, said the charges are baseless and vows to prove in court that the authorities are going after the wrong man.
'Under the American system my client is innocent until proven guilty,' Harvey said. 'I invite the true evidence to step forward, because all I see is lies.'
Harvey said much of the state police charges are based on accusations by Tareg Kahok, Hamdan's former store manager who has a long criminal record in Florida. And a key part of Kahok's statement to State Police Trooper Gerry Coleman alleged that Hamdan staged a break-in of his own store and the neighboring properties immediately after Hurricane Isaac and solicited others to commit a burglary.
That's crucial because it was Kahok who was originally charged with that burglary. And because he was on probation for a grand theft conviction in Florida, he spent six months in jail in New Orleans and Florida before Cannizzaro's office dropped the charges against him.
Kahok said he was trying to stay on the straight and narrow in New Orleans. But after Isaac blew through, he said he walked in on Hamdan and his tenant, Noma Abel, as Hamdan took a hammer to a window and walls in a laundromat on the property.
Kahok also took photos of workers bagging up cigarettes and liquor at the Chef and Louisa store and said Hamdan directed them take it to one of Hamdan's other properties, on Elysian Fields.
Months later, Kahok said, Hamdan pinned the burglary on him because Kahok quit and called out his boss for the alleged insurance fraud.
'He goes, 'Listen, if you don't come back, I'm gonna ... either kill you, or arrest you.' I said, 'Well, God brought me in this world, God take me. If anyone's gonna get arrested, it's you.' He goes to me, 'Why?' I said, 'Your name's not Omar Hamdan; your name is Isaac Fraud.' And I clicked the phone on him,' Kahok said in an interview with WWL-TV.
'That's what clicked in his head right then: 'So, this guy is going to report me for what I did during the hurricane.' (I) found out that's when he went to make the police report saying I'm the one who broke in his stores,' Kahok added.
Kahok said Hamdan even told him to pay off insurance adjuster Bill Leahy, who came to look at the damage for Lloyd's of London.
'He said, 'Get $1,000 out, all hundreds... Go put it in Bill's pocket. Tell Bill to take care of us.' ... I told him, 'No, I can't do that. That's your store. I'm not gonna do that. It's your store,'' Kahok said, adding that Hamdan then 'took the money, put it in Bill's pocket. Bill refused it, told him, 'Nah, I don't want your money.''
Trooper Gerry Coleman testified in Hamdan's arrest warrant that he interviewed Leahy. Coleman swore that Leahy confirmed that Hamdan tried to pay him off and also said Hamdan tried to claim repair work that was actually done before the storm.
The trooper also found that Hamdan got a $27,000 claim check for hail damage to the gas station canopy that happened in 2011, then claimed the same unfixed canopy had been damaged in Isaac. He also confirmed, as we reported last year, that Hamdan's tenant, Abel, made a claim for damage to his beauty supply store but Hamdan collected the $97,000.
Altogether, Coleman testified in the affidavit that Hamdan collected more than $500,000 on the insurance claims.
Hamdan's wife, meanwhile, has sued Kahok in civil court alleging he embezzled about $500,000 from the Hamdans' stores while working for them.
Another insurance adjuster accused Hamdan of threatening her in relation to his claim, leading to the extortion charge accepted by the district attorney this week, according to an affidavit filed in the case.