Once a week a sedan bearing the Alexandria city seal would pull up to the store-front auditorium on the edge of Alexandria's warehouse district.
A tall, heavy set man with graying hair would enter the crowded hall, walk past the rows of folding tables filled with anxious bingo players and greet another man. The two men would then walk to the back of the auditorium and enter a glassed-in office.
The weekly visitor, according to several people who worked in the bingo hall, was Alexandria prosecutor William L. Cowhig who now is charged with accepting approximately $34,000 in bribes - payable in weekly amounts of $500 - from Diraham Salahi, the same man who greeted him at the auditorium.
The bingo games, sponsored by Salahi's Montessori School, were the most lucrative in the city. They accounted for nearly one out of every two dollars brought in by Alexandria's licensed bingo games, which according to city figures, had a combined gross $1.2 million.
Commonwealth's Attorney Cowhig's appearances at the MSA Auditorium, located at 300 S. Pickett St., and his relationship with Salahi are elements in a scandal involving charges of bribery and illegal gambling that have forced the 53-year-old elected official from office and brought separate charges against others.
Cowhig, through his lawyer, declined to comment on his visits to Salahi's bingo hall.
"It was no secret (that Cowhig was there)," said Charles Craven, a parent and volunteer worker at the bingo games. "He came in around 8:30 or 9 p.m., usually on a Wednesday or Friday night. I would see him walk in talk to Mr. Salahi and then go into (Salahi's) office. Cowhig only stayed for 10 or 15 minutes," said Craven. "He did not play bingo."
Cowhig's visits to the bingo parlor started in late 1976 and ended in "February or March of this year," Craven added.
Jo Butler, another parent of a child enrolled at the Montessori School, remembers asking a friend to whom the city sedan parked out front belonged. "I was told it was Mr. Cowhig's," Butler said.
Within the last year, Butler added, she saw Cowhig arrive at the parlor on several occasions "prior to the games, or when it wasn't very busy." Cowhig, according to Butler, would accompany Salahi to the parlor's office. "I don't know how long he (Cowhig) stayed," she said, "except that one time he stayed about an hour."
Cowhig also was seen at the Montessori School itself, located at 514 N. Pitt St., about six blocks from his City Hall office. "I probably saw him five or six times this year at the school - going in and out of the school's office," said Joyce Feldman, a parent whose 6-year-old son is enrolled there.
"I wondered what he was doing there, since he was not a parent" of a child at the school, Feldman added.
Last week Cowhig was indicated by an Alexandria Circuit Court grand jury on a charge of soliciting and receiving the bribes from Salahi and the school in "various places in the city of Alexandria . . . in exchange for his exercise of discretion as a public servant."
Cowhig also as charged in a separate indictment with organizing, helping to run, and profiting from two illegal gambling - bingo - enterprises elsewhere in the city.
Salahi has said he never "offered" any money to Cowhig, but declined to comment when asked if the money had been solicited. Salahi and Craven both said they expected to be called as witnesses at Cowhig's trial.
The ties between Cowhig and Salahi go back to 1968, when the two men were neighbors on Juliana Place, in the Seminary Hills section of the city. The two "were not very friendly," Salahi said, although their children all were enrolled at the private Ascension Academy.
In 1970 Salahi, 49, a Jerusalem-born and U.S.-educated geologist, incorporated the Montessori School of Alexandria, Inc., using rented quarters in the west end of the city. It was moved several years later to the school's present location, on the edge of Old Town.
Although tuition now ranges from $975 to $1,075 a year, financial troubles plagued the school from the outset. "My wife worked without a salary for seven years. We have devoted our lives to making the school work," Salahi said.
The school tried bake sales, garage sales and book sales, but nothing seemed to cut into the $155,000 debt created by Salahi when he took out three mortgages in his name for the school.
In 1974, school parent Rosemary Craven recommended bingo games, and overnight the fortunes of the tiny school changed.
Hundreds of bingo enthusiasts began showing up for the nightly games. The prizes were the biggest in the area: thousands rather than hundred of dollars and cars instead of bicyles.
The Montessori game stimulated competition among other bingo groups and entrepreneurs, some of whom were recently indicted on local bingo and gambling law violations.
The success of the game was so great that the mortgages on the school were reduced and a $112,000 piece of property in Franconia was purchased - for cash. The school has plans to build the country's first Montessori high school there.
The Montessori game became a financial angel for numerous other charities. Last year it gave $28,836 away to other groups, city finance records show.
Salahi, according to city officials, himself contributed $1,000 to the Frank Mann Educational Trust Fund, set up by Frank Mann, the city's mayor, to benefit city employes, according to several city officials. Last year Salahi paid $1,500 to the League of Women Voters for a king-size bicentennial-designed bed quite and the donated the quilt to the city, according to Rose Berler, president of the group.
The bingo game had problems, however. Cowhig objected to the City Council in 1975 about the Montessori game, expressing concern about its size and the sale of tear-rab bingo cards there.
In tear-tab bingo games, such as "Instant Bingo" and "Bingo in Rotation," players pull labels off cards to see if they have a winning combination of slot-machine-style symbols such as apples and oranges. Various cash prizes are awarded depending on the symbols.
The school became the only bingo game operator to hire its own lobbyist in Richmond, retaining attorney Theodore J. Markow at each session of the state legislature since 1975 to represent its interests.
The Salahis prospered with the games. Corinne Salahi, Dirgham's wife, was put on the payroll (their combined salaries are believed to be around $60,000 annually. The Salahis purchased a second home in Front Royal, and last year they became partners with several other people in the purchase of a $200,000 medical building at 417 N. Washington St. To finance that purchase, the Salahis and others put about $25,000 down and tool out a $175,000 bank loan, according to court records. The monthly payment is $1,632.
Although Salahi was not charged in the indictment, a conviction of Cowhig could endanger the school's bingo permit, according to several city officals. Council member Donald C. Casey had said flatly he will move to revoke the permit if there is a conviction.
Such a prospect is of deep concern to parents, as well as to Salahi. "The school depends on bingo," he said. "Everything we've done, the ballet classes, the music lessions, the two new buses we are buying for $22,000 - that all comes from bingo." Bingo has become an ugly word in Alexandria, which is a shame, because it's a wonderful way to make money," he said.