Flashy Va. Businessman Vanishes, Leaving Large Debts Behind
Thursday, July 16, 2009
Subtlety was never one of Osama El-Atari's strong suits.
The son of Jordanian immigrants was a self-described "car nut" who racked up a fierce number of speeding tickets across Northern Virginia. He told a reporter that he owned two Lamborghinis, two Ferraris and a Rolls-Royce Phantom, among other vehicles, and that his insurance bill was $18,000 a month. One car dealer said El-Atari would occasionally bring a chauffeur to dealerships.
The Loudoun County restaurateur tried to show off his wealth whenever he could, by donating thousands to local political candidates or purchasing expensive sports memorabilia at charity galas. He told The Washington Post a year ago that he had "no other bad habits."
But now El-Atari has apparently vanished, leaving behind a growing number of debts, lawsuits and confused creditors. He was nowhere to be found at a hearing Friday to consider his creditors' petition to force him into bankruptcy. One bank was told that he might be in London. Another said his vehicles might have been shipped to Jordan.
"We looked into the accounts for El-Atari Holdings, and there's nothing left," said David B. Tatge, the D.C. attorney for the creditors. "I guess I'm not really surprised."
Three banks say in court documents that El-Atari used nonexistent life insurance policies to get millions in loans. An insurance company says the FBI is investigating at least one of those cases, involving Northern Trust Bank in Cleveland. Creditors are crying foul, asking that El-Atari cough up $41.6 million in unpaid loans. More banks are coming forward, too.
"I'm just waiting to see what happens," said Kevin Korban, a Bentley dealer in Bethesda who says he lent El-Atari $230,000 in March for what he thought were real estate ventures. "I just hope all these bits and pieces about where he might be come together."
The case has caught the attention of many residents in Loudoun, partly because of the staggering sum owed by El-Atari to his creditors and partly because of El-Atari's flashy persona, which he routinely flaunted with his fleet of expensive sports cars.
"He was far from normal. He was one of these larger-than-life characters," said Allie Ash, who met El-Atari through a Lamborghini dealership that Ash owned in Dulles. "He always talked a good game, but, then again, these guys always do."
El-Atari, 30, worked in the restaurant business, owning four Original Steakhouse & Sports Theatre locations in Maryland and Virginia. He bought the steakhouses in 2007 for $3.5 million. Creditors say much of his wealth was accumulated through a series of bank loans, some totaling $12 million.
He used some of the money to make a series of campaign contributions, including thousands to Loudoun Sheriff Stephen O. Simpson since 2007. Simpson said that he met El-Atari during his reelection campaign last year and that the young businessman appeared "interested in what we wanted to do over the next four years."
But Simpson said he has had little contact with El-Atari since and denied rumors that he helped the businessman avoid more problems with his spotty driving record. "It's pretty obvious when you look at his record that no one was fixing his tickets," he said. El-Atari has at least 11.