NEW YORK – The developer behind an Islamic cultural center and mosque planned near ground zero says it never occurred to him that building it near the site of the Sept. 11 attacks would stir up so much debate.
Sharif El-Gamal told CBS News in an interview broadcast on Monday it hadn't even crossed his mind once because he didn't hold himself or Islam "accountable for that tragedy."
He said the center, which would include a health club, exhibition space and a Sept. 11 memorial, should be "universally known as a hub of culture, a hub of coexistence, a hub of bringing people together."
El-Gamal leads a real estate investment firm that owns the lower Manhattan building where the $100 million center, known as Park51, would open.
The plans have led to a national discussion over freedom of religion and the sensitivities of the relatives of Sept. 11 victims, with everyone from President Barack Obama and former vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin weighing in. Some conservative candidates have seized on the issue as midterm elections near.
But before the Brooklyn-born El-Gamal was the center of attention, he had only a few modest real estate deals to his name.
El-Gamal, the 37-year-old son of a Polish mother and Egyptian father, went through a rough period in his life in the early 1990s with run-ins with law enforcement.
In Nassau County, just east of New York, he pleaded guilty to disorderly conduct in 1990, driving while intoxicated in 1992 and attempted petit larceny in 1993, authorities said.
In Manhattan, he was arrested in 1994 on a charge of patronizing a prostitute, which was pleaded down to disorderly conduct, a violation. He also pleaded guilty to disorderly conduct after an arrest in 1998 for petty larceny, which was dropped before arraignment to possession of stolen property, and after an arrest in 1999 for trespassing.
Then, in 2006, El-Gamal was sued by a tenant who said El-Gamal had roughed him up in a rent dispute, according to court records and the tenant's lawyer.
The tenant, Mark Vassiliev, was subletting a Manhattan apartment from El-Gamal's brother, lawyer Erik L. Gray said. Vassiliev was about a month late on the rent when El-Gamal, his brother and another man let themselves into the apartment and began berating him in September 2005, Gray said. Vassiliev promised to pay, but El-Gamal cursed at him in Arabic, spat on him and punched him in the face a couple of times, Gray said.
El-Gamal's lawyer in the case had no immediate comment Monday evening, but court records show El-Gamal argued that Vassiliev had attacked him.
Gray said El-Gamal was a far more physically imposing figure than the tenant and his account of being attacked by the tenant wasn't accurate.
"If you were in the same room with the two of them, you could know that wasn't the case," Gray said.
The case was settled in 2008, records show. Gray said El-Gamal paid Vassiliev $15,000.
El-Gamal blamed his transgressions on his age at the time.
"I regret many things that I did in my youth. I have not always led a perfect life," El-Gamal said in a statement. "My faith teaches me every day about humility. I have been humbled by my imperfections. But my faith also teaches me about forgiveness. 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."
Associated Press writer Jennifer Peltz and AP Investigative Researcher Randy Herschaft contributed to this report.