The party crashers: A trail of accusations leads to Tareq and Michaele Salahi

By Mary Jordan, Neely Tucker and Amy Argetsinger
Wednesday, December 23, 2009; C01

A Georgetown stylist sued Michaele Salahi to get paid for her $4,000 blond hair extensions. A Herndon couple went to court accusing the Salahis of breach of contract over the extra $25,000 they charged for their wedding. An Alexandria music promoter sued for $25,000 after paying to fly a band from France for a Salahi charity event.

Before they gained international notoriety by walking into the White House without an invitation, Tareq and Michaele Salahi were well known inside courthouses all around the capital area. A review of court records shows that more than 30 lawsuits in Virginia and Maryland have been filed against one or both of the Salahis, or a company they ran, since 2004. Some cases are pending, and some were settled out of court. Many times the judges ordered the couple to pay their bills but they haven't yet. In rare cases, the Salahis won.

The picture that emerges from court documents and interviews with detectives, sheriff's deputies and two dozen people who say they were bilked is that the Salahis created for themselves a fantastic world of champagne bubbles and fashion, famous friends and jet-setting good times, when, in fact, the reality was far different.

The court cases and interviews show that they convinced one person and company after another to chauffeur them, pamper them, provide designer dresses, food or entertainment -- then left them holding the bill. When challenged they sometimes countersued.

"Every courthouse clerk in the vicinity recognizes the Salahi name," said Mark Simons, a process server who delivered a summons to Tareq Salahi. Jim Jones, a detective in the Fauquier County Sheriff's Office, said the Salahis arrived at court with fanfare and in a white stretch limousine, leading onlookers to remark: "They're back!"

Sheriffs and process servers said they were reduced to playing cat-and-mouse to serve the Salahis notice; one process server said he waited four hours beside the Salahis' driver, only to get the slip.

At least three couples who held their weddings at the Salahi family's Oasis vineyard sued, saying large, unexplained charges showed up on their wedding bills.

"It was devastating at the time," said Marybeth Wootton, who said she ended up paying $20,000 in legal fees on top of a $55,000 wedding. She said her 2006 wedding turned out to be a $600-a-person event -- three times as much as expected. She was billed for so much wine that every guest -- including the children -- would have had to drink two bottles each, she said.

Just before Wootton's wedding, her credit card company put a hold on her account because of "suspicious billing" from Oasis, according to court documents. But as Wootton was leaving for her rehearsal dinner, an attorney for the Salahis called and threatened to cancel the wedding if she did not allow the charges to go through, according to the lawsuit filed in Fauquier County General District Court. Later, the Salahis offered to settle the $25,000 suit. Wootton said she received $5,000 with a promise to pay the rest. She never got more, she said.

Most of the cases are civil suits seeking payment for everything from auto repairs to a hospital visit, though there are complaints from an employee alleging that Tareq Salahi used abusive, obscene language, and from a tow-truck driver alleging that Tareq stole his truck keys and threatened to pull a gun when he came to tow away Tareq's Audi on a bank repossession order.

In many of the court documents, the Salahis denied claims against them. They did not respond to repeated attempts to reach them for comment for this article, including a note under the door of their home, telephone calls and e-mails. A notice taped on their door in Front Royal warned people "not to attempt to contact by e-mail or call." A New York-based law firm representing them on the state-dinner matter, Dewey & LeBoeuf, declined to discuss any other issue. David W. Silek, a Manassas-based lawyer who has represented the couple on many cases in local courts, said, when asked why the couple has been sued so many times: "I can't answer that. No comment."

An e-mail sent to The Washington Post last week and signed by Susan Dove, one of Michaele's bridesmaids at her 2003 wedding, amounted to a general defense of the couple and used the word "we." It described the Salahis as charitable people who had raised money for good causes. The e-mail said the couple's signature event, America's Polo Cup for charity, had been put under "great strain" because others had not paid them, including a polo club they say reneged on $52,000 in sponsorships, and a caterer who owes $80,000 for sales of wine and beer.

'They're awesome'

Not everyone who dealt with the Salahis had bad experiences, and they have admirers. "They're awesome," said Doug Barnes, a professional polo player who has known Tareq Salahi since college. He called Tareq "nice, friendly and polite" and described Michaele as effusively affectionate. He said she remembers people's names, even the guy who sells her a hot dog, and "makes them feel like most important people on Earth."

Even some who say they suffered financially because of the Salahis describe the couple as warm and fun to be around. Pierre Pirault, a driver who filed a small-claims dispute seeking $1,478 in back wages, volunteered in his complaint that "I had such great experiences working for and with the Salahis and felt as if I had developed a true connection with them."

The Salahis have not shied away from litigation themselves.

When their homeowners association sought court help to get them to pay $500 in dues, the Salahis went to court with their own accusation and alleged that they suffered $15,000 in vehicle damage because the Mosby's Overlook Estates association did not properly maintain its roads. With the help of a mediator, those two cases were dropped and the Salahis were recused from paying dues.

Travis Frantz, president of the homeowners group, said local custom is to acknowledge neighbors driving past on the narrow rural roads with a wave, but he now looks the other way when the Salahis drive by.

One Virginia caterer, Jerome Farmer, was in court last week. Farmer claims that Tareq Salahi owes him $15,000 for catering services, and that as a result of the bad debt, he lost electricity, phone service and was unable to pay his servers.

Tareq Salahi said in an interview at the Fauquier County General District Court hearing that Farmer owes him money for concessions of sales of beer and wine. "We are prepared to take this to the highest court in the land," he said.

"We don't even have a license to sell alcohol," Farmer said, calling Salahi's claims "bogus."

Many with grievances were workers or people with small businesses who never filed a lawsuit, calculating that the legal costs would be too high. When some of them saw the Salahis in the news, they contacted The Post. Among them: Montgomery County police officers who worked as private security for the polo event and say they were never paid, and a performer dressed as Uncle Sam.

"Uncle Sam worked for two days and wasn't paid," said Jan Kearney, owner of Cast of Thousands, which provides strolling performers for parties. The Salahis owe her $800, she said. Given all the creditors upset with the couple, Kearney said, "it's so amazing they can show their face anywhere -- let alone the White House."

Louis Kouts, a retired Air Force colonel in Aldie, said he thought about suing but his lawyer advised against it. The Salahis "nearly ruined" his daughter's wedding, he said. "They were not honest with us," he claimed, and unfairly billed $13,000 in extra charges.

The trappings of the rich

Legal complaints against the Salahis extend beyond the Washington area. Antonio Prospero, who owns a New York winery, sent Oasis about $50,000 in automated bottling equipment and sued when he wasn't paid; Oasis claimed the equipment was defective and countersued. The judge sided with Prospero last year, but Prospero said he still has not received a dime.

The Salahis managed to find new caterers, drivers, suppliers, law firms. According to court claims in Montgomery, Alexandria, Arlington, Fauquier, Loudoun, Warren and Fairfax counties, the Salahis have left a string of unpaid legal bills. Claims against the couple include $59,000 to a Warrenton law firm, $19,000 to a Manassas attorney, $18,000 to a Herndon law firm, $7,400 to an Arlington firm and $5,500 to a law group in Alexandria.

Banks, telephone companies, auto mechanics, musicians and others also say they weren't paid, according to claims made in court. The Washington Post wasn't paid $24,000 for advertising. Warren Memorial Hospital wasn't paid $3,000 for emergency-room visits. Montgomery County is seeking $15,000 for an unpaid county liquor bill.

While there had been whispers about the Salahis being in debt, most of the people interviewed said they did not realize the extent of the Salahis' financial and legal troubles and would have steered clear if they had. Instead, the Salahis seemed to fit in Virginia horse country and in the social rounds of the capital city.

"Tareq came across like he was a Secret Service agent, like he was James Bond," said Tom Higginbotham, a former limo driver for the pair who said he quit after he was not paid. "He had his Aston Martin, he had a pretty woman by his side, he had an air about him."

But the 2005 Aston Martin, purchased for $167,000, according to court documents, was repossessed in 2008. The stunning pink dress Michaele wore to a polo event was returned weeks later to the Tysons Corner store where it came from, still slightly muddied even after a stop at the dry cleaner, according to a former friend, Rachel Harshman, and the Versace shop manager, Shane Robbins.

"They had an addiction to a lifestyle they couldn't afford," said Cammie Copps Fuller, a florist from Jeffersonton, Va., who sued and got $2,000 of the $3,000 she said they owed her for their wedding flowers. "Karma -- call it what you will -- caught up to them."

The couple's claims were often unsupported -- Michaele indicated she had been a Washington Redskins cheerleader, but the Redskins cheerleading alumnae officials found no record of that. Their fundraiser, America's Polo Cup, claimed to have Land Rover, the Ritz-Carlton Hotel Co. and others as 2010 sponsors; the companies say they are not. The event boasts of being sanctioned by the National Polo League, yet officials at the U.S. Polo Association, the sport's governing body, had not heard of the league or ever seen, spoken to or heard of its commissioner, Roger Stern. Stern is often listed on Salahi documents as sharing their home address.

"There's no such thing as National Polo League," insisted Charlie Muldoon, a professional player who knows the Salahis.

The Salahis also boasted about their polo ties to Prince Charles and led many, including sponsors, to believe the prince was going to attend the first America's Polo Cup, in 2007.

The promotional materials for that match billed it as between the "USA and England" and said "England's Polo Team Patroned by His Royal Highness, The Prince of Wales" would take on an American team. When Tareq helped write an article about his event for an advertising section in a regional edition of Town & Country magazine, he headlined it "A Royal Celebration" and included pictures of himself and Prince Charles playing polo.

A royal spokesman in London said the prince was never invited to play.

The U.S. Polo Association withdrew its sanction of the event months before it took place "due to the legitimacy of their fundraising, the accuracy of their promotional claims and the fact that they didn't pay their bills," Jim Burton, a regional official of the organization and president of the Great Meadow Polo Club, said in an e-mail earlier this month.

The Virginia Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services is now investigating America's Polo Cup and the charity it was to benefit, Journey for the Cure.

Who's the victim here?

Area police know the Salahis, too. Montgomery County police detective Bill Heverly researched the Salahis on a police database and found 41 records of contacts with officers, many of which were Salahi claims of being victimized. Last year, Michaele called 911, saying her husband had been assaulted by a tow-truck driver. According to court documents and the dispatcher calls, the driver, who had come to repossess the couple's Audi, said he ran down the driveway and called 911 after Tareq threatened to pull a gun on him. Twelve minutes later, Michaele dialed the emergency number and said the driver threatened them.

The police arrived and investigated, and one officer wrote this as his conclusion: "During a conversation with Mr. Salahi after the incident was over, I explained to Mr. Salahi that I did not appreciate him not telling us the truth when he calls us to his house and he asked if I was calling him a liar. I said I guess I am."

Testy confrontations didn't seem to slow the Salahis down, several people who know them said.

Hairstylist Christophe Jouenne said he couldn't believe how Michaele acted after he sued her for not paying her $4,000 bill. He said she had called him in a panic saying she urgently needed to update her hair extensions. He had human hair overnighted to his Georgetown salon and worked from 7 p.m. until midnight on her now-famous locks. While they were feuding over the unpaid bill in court, she ran up to him at a charity event and give him a big hug.

"She had the audacity to jump at my neck like I was her best friend," Jouenne said.

Jones, the detective with the Fauquier sheriff's department, said that with all their legal troubles, "you'd think they would be staying out of sight, but that is not what they do.

"I am sure a lot of people weren't surprised when people saw their picture that night they went to the White House."

Contributing to this report were staff writers Karla Adam, DeNeen L. Brown, James V. Grimaldi, Rosalind Helderman, James Hohmann, Allison Klein, Anita Kumar, David Montgomery, Dan Morse, Liza Mundy, Roxanne Roberts, Ian Shapira and Miranda S. Spivack and staff researchers Alice Crites, Meg Smith and Julie Tate.

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