If an eminent domain battle wasn’t enough drama, Douglas County’s effort to acquire a site for a $120 million justice center also became entangled in a three-year-old divorce case, in which the putative ex-wife contends that her recently remarried ex-husband is still married to her.
The county is trying to acquire most of the block southwest of 18th and Harney Streets. The County Board is considering a proposal to erect a new 10-story building for juvenile court and the County Attorney’s and Public Defender’s Offices, plus a youth detention center and a parking garage.
The owner of a vacant building at 420 S. 18th St. has vowed to fight the county’s effort to use eminent domain to force him to sell. Meanwhile, the latest snag involves another building, the historic original Omaha Public Library building at 1823 Harney St.
The Omaha Housing Authority proposes to move its headquarters to the library building, which had been converted to offices for lawyers and the Central High School Foundation, among others. The Housing Authority agreed to sell its current headquarters, 1805 Harney St., and parking lot to the county for $2.75 million. The library building owner, Bassel El-Kasaby, agreed to sell the library building to the housing authority for $2.75 million.
El-Kasaby, a lawyer, stood to make a tidy profit. He had paid $1.84 million for the library building in 2016.
But there was a hitch. Elena Reveiz, whom El-Kasaby had sought to divorce in 2015, filed a lawsuit this spring asking for the divorce decree to be thrown out. Reveiz contended that the decree was invalid. Her lawsuit contends that Nebraska law permits a judge to issue a divorce decree 60 days after the defendant is officially notified, but the judge in her case, Michael Coffey, filed the decree on the 59th day — one day too soon.
Therefore, Reveiz argued, the couple are still married and she has an ownership interest in the historic library building. She asked the court to block the sale of the 1823 Harney St. building to the housing authority, and filed a notice, called a lis pendens, that pending legal action cast a shadow over the title of the building.
El-Kasaby disputed Reveiz’s contention that they are still married or that she shares ownership of the library building, noting that he acquired the building a year after the divorce. El-Kasaby asked a judge to throw out her lawsuit. And he filed his own lawsuit accusing Reveiz and her attorney, Denise Frost, of acting in bad faith to interfere with his business, including the sale of the building to the OHA.
In an interview, El-Kasaby said Reveiz filed the lawsuit to “cause injury” by preventing him from investing the proceeds from the library building. He said it was “a lot of unnecessary drama” and “an ugly chapter in this building’s history.”
“I got served with this on my honeymoon after my new wedding,” El-Kasaby said. “It would have cost me $300,000 in income taxes. ... Even if she has a claim on this thing, I’m not going to run away with the money.”
Frost said she is aware that El-Kasaby contends that was her client’s motive.
“He is categorically wrong,” Frost said.
She said Reveiz had “zero interest” in derailing the sale.
“We just want to make sure the proceeds of the sale are accounted for,” Frost said.
She contends that the corporation through which El-Kasaby purchased the building was created during the couple’s marriage, so the sale proceeds are part of their “marital estate” subject to being divided by the court.
The housing authority, seeking to close on its purchase, intervened in Reveiz’s lawsuit.
Now, it looks like the sale of the historic building will go through. In recent days, Reveiz agreed to drop her lis pendens, and El-Kasaby agreed to drop his countersuit. The parties agreed on how the proceeds of the sale should be handled.
The housing authority expects to close on the building by about July 31. The original purchase agreement had listed June 15 as the target closing date. July 31 would be only about two weeks later than the agency had expected to be able to close the deal, OHA board Chairwoman Jennifer Taylor said.
“It gave us time to work through some other due-diligence issues,” she said.
The lawsuit won’t slow the agency’s plans to move into the library building this fall, Taylor said.
The lawsuit over the divorce continues.
“There’s still work to be done in this case, and hopefully we can get down to it,” Frost said.