By Derek Kravitz
Washington Post Staff Writer
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.
Things began to unravel for El-Atari in December, when Celebrity Ventures, the Florida company that owns the rights to the Original Steakhouse name, sued him in U.S. District Court in Fort Lauderdale. The company alleged that El-Atari had failed to pay about $205,000 in royalty fees. The case was settled out of court.
In May, United Bank pressed El-Atari to repay about $13.8 million in loans, interest and lawyers' fees. He promised to "come to the bank with payment, at least in part, within days," according to documents filed in Loudoun Circuit Court. "He did not do so. The bank was told, one time, that he was in London."
Celebrity Ventures signed on to the bankruptcy court filing against El-Atari and is planning to terminate its franchise deals; El-Atari's ex-business partner, former Washington Redskins linebacker Marvcus Patton, has taken ownership of the restaurants. He declined to comment on the case and the change in ownership.
Fraud investigators with Allstate Insurance in Cleveland said the FBI field office there is investigating El-Atari, and creditors allege that El-Atari "committed various acts of fraud" with other lenders, including First Place Bank of Ohio and Clayton Bank of Tennessee. The FBI declined to comment.
El-Atari was equally well known for his criminal and traffic court history, with several convictions for reckless driving and driving with a suspended license in Arlington, Fairfax, Greene and Loudoun counties, according to court records. El-Atari pleaded guilty two years ago to a more serious federal misdemeanor charge after a former counterterrorism officer for the Defense Logistics Agency's headquarters in Fort Belvoir supplied his part-time employer, El-Atari, with an official agency police badge "as a gift for future business opportunities."
El-Atari, who said he worked as a volunteer interpreter for the agency, later used the badge to apply for liquor licenses at two of his restaurants. He paid a $500 fine.
For all of the paperwork on El-Atari -- his case file at the Loudoun Courthouse in Leesburg numbers several thousand pages -- creditors and their attorneys have had little luck tracking him down.
El-Atari's $3.8 million Ashburn home sits empty, with a bankruptcy notice taped to the front door. The office listed on state forms for El-Atari's company, El-Atari Holdings, is a post office box in a strip mall next to one of his old restaurants. The store manager said he hasn't seen El-Atari in weeks.
Employees at El-Atari's Broadlands steakhouse say they don't know where he is. Bennett Law Office, a group of Missoula, Mont., lawyers associated with a second firm in his name, Oeletari Investments, declined to comment. The registered agent for that company, a fly-fishing charter company owner in Juneau, Alaska, said she had never heard of El-Atari.