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Days of wine and poses
Vintners Michaele & Tareq Salahi drink deeply from life, but not all is so sparkling

By Neely Tucker and Amy Argetsinger
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, November 28, 2009

Before Tareq and Michaele Salahi catapulted to international notoriety as possible White House gate-crashers this week, the Virginia socialites had their pictures taken with President Obama during his inauguration, Prince Charles at a polo match and Oprah Winfrey at another event. They had Supreme Court Justice Anthony M. Kennedy speak at their elaborate wedding, which more than 1,800 guests attended.

Friends describe the 40-something pair as "fun-loving" and unabashed about pursuing the spotlight and playing the debonair couple who know and are known by all the right people.

But by Friday, Secret Service agents were seen trying to track down the pair to learn how they managed to get into Obama's first state dinner; interviews and court records also show the couple have a far less glamorous side. These documents and statements include dozens of civil suits alleging non-payment for services, a long-running (and very public) feud with Tareq Salahi's parents about ownership and control of their now-idle 108-acre winery and claims the couple made about accomplishments that can't be verified.

Casey Margenau, a McLean-based real estate agent and longtime friend of Tareq Salahi, said he talked with the couple Thursday. He said the investigation was "hard on them," because the couple believed they "really were invited guests."

"There's a video out there of Tareq opening a champagne bottle with a saber," Margenau said. "That's him. That's his personality . . . they've always loved living large, always loved living in the spotlight. They have strong personalities and are very outgoing. Some people like that and some people really dislike it, so much that, well, sometimes people hate you when you're like that."

The circumstances of the state dinner at the White House for the Indian prime minister on Tuesday remain unclear.

On Wednesday, hours before the White House denied that the Salahis were legitimate guests, The Post asked the couple via Facebook how they happened to attend the dinner. Tareq, captain of the America's Cup Polo team, responded: "India is the challenger in the America's Polo Cup World Championships June 11/12 2010, and they are very excited in this first ever cultural connection being hosted on the DC National Mall since Polo is one of the primary sports in India."

When pressed about why they did not appear on the official list, he added, "It was last-minute attending."

Reached on his cell, their attorney, Paul W. Gardner, said, "Okay. No. No. No." and hung up.

Tareq Salahi's stake to local fame and wealth stems from the family winery, Oasis, in Fauquier County. It is one of Virginia's oldest, founded in 1977 by Dirgham and Corinne Salahi. It was known for its sparkling blended wines, and it hosted large social events and provided an attractive tourist destination.

But it had fallen into debt in recent years. It became the subject of ugly local complaints about the disruption that the winery's events caused on narrow back roads. And it devolved into a bitter family squabble pitting parents against son.

The family put it up for sale in 2007, and a year ago it was still on the market for $4.7 million. In February 2009, according to court records, the winery filed for bankruptcy. In a civil suit in Fauquier County Circuit Court last year, Dirgham and Corinne Salahi alleged that Tareq had interfered with the winery's sale.

The bankruptcy papers for "Oasis Enterprises" describe the repossession last year of a 2004 Aston Martin valued at $150,000, and a Carver 350 Mariner boat valued at $90,000. The document lists $334,000 in assets and $965,000 in liabilities.

Both sides later said the lawsuit was dormant, and Tareq said it would be settled without monetary payments. The dispute grew so unpleasant that Tareq and Michaele, who had lived there, left.

* * *

The couple's latest listed address is in Mosby's Overlook Estates in Front Royal. Travis Frantz, a neighbor and the president of the 28-property homeowners association, said he recently tried to put a lien on the Salahi home because they hadn't paid dues since the first year they moved in. A settlement was reached in mediation, he said, adding that Tareq has not yet paid that amount.

"If they would drive by, I would just look the other way," Frantz said. "I wouldn't wave. It's not that we're snobby. We just know what kind of people they are."

Frantz said he was not the couple's only creditor. He said sheriff's deputies have stopped at his house several times trying to serve papers on Tareq Salahi and wanting to know where they might find him.

The couple were not at home late Friday. The two-story house, assessed at nearly $700,000, sits on a gravel road, near the top of a mountain overlooking Interstate 66. Parked in the driveway was a white stretch limo, with a vanity tag reading "VAWINE3." Small stickers on both passenger doors advertise "America's Polo Cup."

They met in 1999 at a Christmas party in Margenau's home.

"Tareq was very aggressive about trying to get engaged," Rachel Harshman, who owns a horse farm near Middleburg and was formerly friends with Michaele, said Friday.

The Salahis eventually staged a self-described "wedding of the century," on Oct. 5, 2002, at the Cathedral of St. Matthew The Apostle in downtown Washington.

According a video posted on YouTube, the wedding and the reception (the latter held at the winery) featured "28 Bridesmaids, 28 Groomsmen, 8 Flower Girls . . . a 36 piece Big-Band during dinner & dancing . . . 186 catering food servers . . . 36,000 square feet of tenting . . . 50 Bar tenders . . . 46 Chefs . . . 15 Official photographers . . . 8 Video cameras with full film crew/sound team . . . one camera man standing on a Construction Crane 300 feet above the Cathedral."

The couple was featured in DC Style magazine during its short-lived run a few years ago. They are posed at mid-distance in a stylish, high-ceiling bar. He's wearing black slacks with a white tuxedo top, hands in pockets. She is next to him in a tight, short dress, turned away, both hands pressed against a wall, head tilted forward, lips pursed into a pout, left leg arched up on tiptoe.

* * *

It's a glamorous image.

But Harshman, who says the couple owe her tens of thousands of dollars, said she had noted something odd when she had first met Michaele in the 1990s. At the time, she said, Michaele was working jobs in retail and living with her parents in a simple condominium in Oakton. The family was not wealthy, Harshman says.

One night out with friends, Harshman said, she was surprised when Michaele casually mentioned that she was a model. "I said, 'You never mentioned this to me before.' " Later, Harshman said, "it grew into 'supermodel.' I ignored it half the time."

Last year Michaele, now 44, told a Post reporter that she had been a Washington Redskins cheerleader, and she has been photographed at several alumni events. But the cheerleaders' director of marketing, Melanie Coburn, wrote in an e-mail: "We have no record of her being a member of the Washington Redskins Cheerleaders."

Nor could the Washington Redskins Cheerleaders Alumni Association find any record of her, said Terri Crane-Lamb, president of the association.

One former cheerleader, Konnie McKee, said Michaele came to alumni events, but no one remembered her being on the squad. McKee and Crane-Lamb noticed Michaele attending WRCAA events. "I remember Terri and I talking: 'What's the deal? Does anyone remember her?' "

* * *

Tareq Salahi, 40, a polo player and wine expert, was also running up a sizable number of detractors.

He got involved in the Courage Cup, a polo match launched in 2004 by Greg Ball, a former Air Force officer. Salahi was later one of the board members who sided with Ball in a bitter feud (involving e-mails blasted to hundreds of area polo fans) over who controlled the event -- Ball, or the two women he asked to run it in 2006 while he pursued a state legislature seat in New York.

A Post investigation later found that as much as $10,000 in ticket sales to the Poolesville, Md., match -- though widely advertised as benefiting polo training for underprivileged kids -- ended up in a political action campaign started by Ball, and eventually into his campaign treasury.

Salahi then launched America's Polo Cup in 2007.

He and the event were sued for more than $300,000 by Market Salamander, a high-profile catering operation in Middleburg in 2008, alleging nonpayment of services for a Polo Cup event that was widely panned. (The Salahis countersued.)

Market Salamander officials did not return calls Friday.

This spring, the organization hosted a United States-Italy polo match, with performances by Huey Lewis and the News and fireworks to benefit the Journey for the Cure Foundation, a Salahi-run charity that said it raised money for childhood diseases.

But the next week, the Virginia Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services sent out an official caution noting that the foundation had, as of three days after the event, "not registered with or been granted the appropriate exempt status by the Commissioner as required by law."

The organization's Web site now lists a federal tax ID number. It was not immediately clear whether the warning from the state has been resolved.

On Wednesday, the day after the state dinner, Michaele Salahi came into Georgetown's Roche Salon. She had been there the week before, a visit that was filmed for possible inclusion in "The Real Housewives of Washington," a potential reality show planned for Bravo.

On her second visit, she was excited about the White House event.

"She was telling me all about the dinner," Dennis Roche said. "She was, like, it was really great. She said they didn't get home until 5. Then she came back in here."

As to how she got into the event, "she alluded to me is that she had White House clearance," Roche said. "I took that to mean, if she had White House clearance, she had an invitation."

Diane Weiss, tasting room manager at Oasis, said Secret Service agents came to the winery Friday, seeking the couple. She quoted one agent as saying: "We're not here to arrest them today. We're just looking to talk to them. It's very imperative that we talk to them." (The Warren County Report newspaper first reported the Secret Service's visit to the winery on its Web site.)

She said the agents spoke to Tareq's parents. His father briefly got on the telephone with The Post before handing it back to Weiss. Corinne Salahi was not immediately available. "She's a very private person," Weiss said. "She prefers not to be talking to anybody."

Staff writers Cindy Boren, Michael Cotterman, Wil Haygood, James Hohmann, David Montgomery, Dan Morse and Ian Shapira, and staff researchers Meg Smith and Julie Tate contributed to this report.

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