It took Salahi for me to side with Cuccinelli

Robert McCartney
Columnist April 25, 2012

Virginia Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli II has finally found a cause I can heartily endorse: harassing Tareq Salahi.

On Monday, Cuccinelli’s office sued the notorious White House gate-crasher and two of his ventures for allegedly scamming customers of a Northern Virginia wine tour business. The attorney general (R) acted less than two months after concluding an earlier suit with a settlement in which Salahi and one of his charities agreed to pay $35,000 in penalties and expenses.

Robert McCartney’s column on local issues appears Thursdays and Sundays in The Post’s Metro section. View Archive

I have no illusions about Cuccinelli’s motives in waging this campaign. The sums involved are small. The attorney general is clearly picking on Salahi because it’s an easy way to get publicity. Both men are aggressive self-promoters and catnip for the media.

(True to form, on Wednesday Salahi guaranteed the latest story would stay alive for another news cycle by suggesting, bizarrely, that he would run against Cuccinelli and others for the Virginia governorship next year.)

I haven’t liked it when Cuccinelli has employed such tactics in the past. The tea party favorite rushed to be the first state official to file suit to block President Obama’s health-care law. He twisted himself into legal knots to persecute a former University of Virginia professor for daring to join the rest of the scientific establishment in asserting that humans are causing climate change.

In this case, however, Cuccinelli has taken the side of the angels. He’s trying to hold Salahi accountable for alleged offenses against ordinary people — folks who said they had paid $600 to $1,200 in advance for tours that were never provided or didn’t deliver what was promised, and who never got full refunds.

Such tales have not been the main focus of media interest in Tareq Salahi or his estranged wife, Michaele. Recently, we’d much rather talk about Tareq’s $50 million lawsuit against Michaele for humiliating him by running off with Journey guitarist Neal Schon. (It was recently dismissed.)

But the bad business practices alleged by Cuccinelli merit his attention, and ours, for apparently causing real losses and real headaches. The lawsuit is based on five grievances sent to the state Office of Consumer Affairs and seven to the Better Business Bureau.

One complaint came from Thomas and Annette Wittmann of Erie, Pa. They paid more than $1,100 to schedule a tour last year of four wineries for a bachelorette party hosted by their daughter.

The couple got nervous about three weeks before the event, when repeated phone calls and e-mails to the company, Virginia Wine Country Tours, were not returned.

Thomas Wittmann phoned the individual wineries directly. Three didn’t want to talk, but a woman at the fourth was helpful.

“She said, ‘Hey, you don’t know about this? The Salahis are the ones who do this. It’s a scam. I’m sure you got taken,’ ” Wittmann said.

The couple quickly arranged a tour with a different company, but their anger lingered.

“We felt violated and outraged that we had to scramble on our own with so little time to put together another tour,” Annette Wittmann said.

The couple were able to get a refund of $392.50 for the portion paid by credit card. They’re still out $785 paid by check.

Tareq Salahi, in a phone interview Tuesday evening, said that he hadn’t yet reviewed the Cuccinelli lawsuit but that “nothing was done wrong with the business.”

He also tried to put the responsibility on Michaele, saying: “The truth is, my wife ran that side of the business. . . . I was behind the scenes.”

Salahi stressed that he was a victim of Cuccinelli’s ambitions. In a “look who’s talking” comment of gargantuan proportions, Salahi said that Cuccinelli “will do anything for media attention.”

Carl Tobias, a law professor at the University of Richmond, agreed with Salahi that the attorney general could be faulted for overreaching.

“My reaction is, aren’t there bigger fish to fry?” Tobias said. “It doesn’t strike me that this is the most egregious thing that’s happened in the commonwealth of late.”

But Tobias also acknowledged that there was value in “making an example of people, especially high-profile people.”

That’s my view. Whatever Cuccinelli’s underlying purpose, I’ll support a lawsuit that might make businesspeople think twice before defrauding people. Sic ’em, Ken.

I discuss local issues at 8:51 a.m. Friday on WAMU (88.5 FM). For previous columns, go to washingtonpost.com/mccartney.

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