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Virginia will probe Salahis' Polo Cup

By Neely Tucker
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, December 4, 2009

The Virginia Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services on Thursday began a formal investigation into the America's Polo Cup, the business entity run by Michaele and Tareq Salahi that the couple says raises funds for their charitable organization, as a host of other problems became apparent for the couple.

The Indian Embassy canceled that nation's participation in the Polo Cup's 2010 event. The couple has advertised that event will take place on the Mall, but the National Park Service said the Salahis had not been granted a permit.

The Salahis say the America's Polo Cup is sanctioned by the "National Polo League," an organization whose director says was founded in 1893 and lists teams across the country. But officials for the nation's largest polo organization said Thursday that they had never heard of the league, its teams or its purported director.

In Florida, a polo magazine editor said the Salahis submitted pictures for a December 2008 article that identified Michaele Salahi as a "former Miss USA." No record exists of her winning that beauty crown, pageant officials said.

And in Montgomery County, a police detective said that when he investigated a complaint filed by the couple earlier this year, a law enforcement database showed that the couple has 41 records detailing various contacts with police, with the Salahis often saying they were victims of wrongdoing. The detective noted in his report that Tareq Salahi sent him paperwork that the detective judged to be false.

"The fact that Tareq Salahi would fabricate an 'invoice' rather than request another copy from the contractor caused the writer to question the veracity of the information given by the Salahis'," wrote Det. Bill Heverly on Oct. 2.

The Salahis did not appear in public Thursday, and their new attorneys, the New York law firm of Dewey & LeBoeuf, declined to respond to developments. "We are not commenting on this matter," wrote Angelo Kakolyris, public relations manager for the firm, in an e-mail.

The Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services will "examine the fundraising practices of America's Polo Cup as they relate to the Virginia Solicitation of Contributions Law," the agency said in a statement. The agency would not comment further because of the investigation, department spokeswoman Elaine Lidholm wrote in an e-mail.

Announcement of the investigation came one day after the Post reported that the 2007 fundraising event had resulted in $15,000 in reported charitable gifts. Tareq Salahi told the Post last year that the event had raised $250,000 for his charity, Journey for the Cure.

Loudoun County contributed $136,500 to help sponsor the event, records show, and high-end sponsors included Cartier and Land Rover. The event resulted in vendors suing the America's Polo Cup or the Salahis for at least $500,000 in unpaid bills.

William O'Keefe, executive director of Morven Park, which hosted the event in 2007 and 2008 in return for a share of the profits, said Thursday that the park received a $5,000 check in 2007 and nothing in 2008. (The $5,000 came from the Salahis' foundation, state reports show, not the America's Polo Cup business account.)

"The books they showed us said they lost money," O'Keefe said.

The Salahis are the only two principals listed for the America's Polo Cup, a business that has held a polo bash each spring since 2007. The event is billed as a fundraiser for the Journey for the Cure, a federally approved nonprofit 501(c)(3) foundation that also lists the Salahis as its only directors. Virginia regulators realized last year, four years after the foundation was established, that it had never registered to raise funds and had filed no financial statements.

After the agency issued a public warning that gifts made to the foundation might not be used for charity, the Salahis filed the required paperwork in November, records show. The only financial information was a few typed-out lines that said the charity took in about $18,000 in 2007 and donated $15,000. There was no record submitted of any other donations.

While the Salahis are the sole proprietors of both enterprises, a 2008 e-mail appearing to be sent from the Salahis' joint e-mail account to an angry volunteer indicated the Salahis scarcely knew the directors of their own foundation. The message said the polo cup had sent the Salahis' foundation "a very nice thank you note, with the donation check," after that year's gala.

"I don't know if they forwarded individual thank you to the volunteers, however if they didn't I will certainly ask them as a board member," the July 24 note to the volunteer reads. "However, we don't have any control over their administrative duties . . . I am calling Journey for the Cure to voice this complaint immediately." (The volunteer asked their name not be used, citing fear of retribution.)

Montgomery County hoped that the 2009 event would bring in posh crowds and cash when the event came to Poolesville that year. But rains descended the day of the event, and the affair left plenty of hard feelings behind. The privately owned polo fields were damaged by vehicles, horses and people traversing the mud, causing about $40,000 in damages, the landowner said. The county filed suit against the couple Thursday to recover about $10,000 from a bounced check the couple sent to pay for liquor.

The name "National Polo League" has appeared off and on through the years as short-lived entities. But the current entity created its Web site on June 11, 2008. The owner of the site blocks their name from appearing on public records.

Someone identifying himself as Roger Stern, the league commissioner, e-mailed a Post reporter earlier this year via Facebook that the league "has been around since 1893."

That is news to the 119-year-old United States Polo Association, the sport's largest organization in the nation. Thomas Biddle, chairman of the USPA's board of directors, said he had never heard of the organization.

Gwen Rizzo, publisher of Polo Players' Edition, a monthly magazine that has covered the sport since 1975, says her publication lists scores from "the smallest clubs to the largest ones."

"I've never heard of the league. I've never heard of the team names. I don't know of any teams by those names playing anywhere."

The America's Polo Cup's next event, the 2010 match against India, appears in doubt on several fronts.

The National Park Service said the Salahis applied for a permit to use the polo grounds, located adjacent to the FDR Memorial (and not part of the Mall). But those fields are going to be the staging area next year for workers building the memorial to Martin Luther King Jr.

"By June, that could be all bulldozers and construction site," National Park Service spokesman Bill Line said. "That would factor into a decision on whether to grant or deny their permit."

Staff writers Amy Argetsinger, James V. Grimaldi, Miranda S. Spivack, Dan Morse, Lisa de Moraes, Binyamin Appelbaum, James Hohmann and researcher Alice Crites contributed to this report.

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