As Salahis testify, witnesses say Secret Service had been warned
When polo-playing socialite Tareq Salahi and his wife, Michaele, testify before Congress Jan. 20 on how they allegedly crashed a White House state dinner last November, the Salahis say they will plead the Fifth, but they claim they have been falsely accused.
"It will truly be a historic moment," said Tareq Salahi, speaking exclusively to the Loudoun Times-Mirror last week. "Not since the 1950s has Congress held hearings of such a historic nature."
In 1950, Congress held hearings on White House security after two Cuban nationalists stormed the Blair House across the street from the White House, imperiling the security of then-President Harry S Truman, who was staying there while the executive mansion was undergoing renovations.
Tareq Salahi told the Times-Mirror that he and his wife would exercise their Fifth Amendment rights to avoid being witnesses against themselves when they appear before the House Subcommittee on Homeland Security, keeping the disclosure of their invitation under wraps until a Wednesday-afternoon news conference at the Capitol.
Tareq Salahi in Leesburg in May 2007. Times-Mirror File Photo/AJ Maclean
When asked why he would not divulge their evidence at the House hearing, Tareq responded: "The answer's easy. Eleanor Holmes Norton."
Norton, a D.C. delegate and committee member, issued a press release Nov. 30, 2009, stating that she believes the Salahis are guilty, "practiced con artists who bamboozled the Secret Service.” As a result, Tareq said he has been advised by his attorneys that they would not get a fair hearing.
Tareq said he and Michaele are innocent of any White House gate-crashing, and have the documentation to prove it. "We were shocked the day after the dinner, when we heard we were on CNN," Tareq said. "We drove over to our friend's house and watched it on television, totally speechless. Crashers? Huh? All we wanted to do was turn around and drive back to the White House and ask them what was going on."
Tareq said the "real story" has not been revealed – why they were labeled "gate crashers" by The Washington Post, which broke the story. He said he plans to sue the Post for libel.
“Dig deeper," he said, speaking in deliberate, conspiratorial tones. "If you look at our bankruptcy filing, you'll see that we owed The Washington Post $24,000 for advertising. Because of the bad economy, we could not pay it. The Post retaliated against us by putting that story out there."
As to what documentation the couple plans to produce showing that they were indeed invited, Tareq responded, "Ohh, we've got much more than an e-mail."
Tareq said he would produce cell phone records and other documents he said show a clear link between State Department and Department of Defense officials who invited him to the White House.
The first gate crash?
The Nov. 24 incident at The White House may not have been the first time the couple made it close to the Obamas.
Greg Woodell, the Salahis' former limousine driver, and Rachel Harshman, once a close friend of Michaele Salahi's, allege that a year ago, the Salahis crashed the presidential inauguration.
The two claim the couple placed a fake pass in the window of their white Lincoln limousine to get into a restricted area of the Mall during the presidential inauguration.
The limo pass, which has been taken as evidence by the Secret Service, shows a presidential seal and the words "Official Presidential Inaugural 2009 Vehihcle (sic)" with the word "vehicle" misspelled. Woodell claims that Tareq Salahi produced the pass on his home computer, photo-shopping the presidential seal onto the pass.
This is the car pass the Salahis are accused of making and using to get into inaugural events. -- Photo by John Arundel
Woodell, 39, became the Salahis' driver in January 2009, and he said he quit in May.
He said he warned the government about the couple.
"I went to the Secret Service on four separate occasions and warned them about Tareq and Michaele," Woodell said. "We told them that they wanted to get close to the Obamas and that this would end up real messy unless they did something."
Woodell's claim that he warned the Secret Service was backed up by Harshman. She said she asked Woodell to call the Secret Service last May and give their accusations, which included claims of credit card fraud, Tareq carrying a concealed weapon around D.C., and in several cases, appropriating the names, identities and credit histories of several dead people. The Times-Mirror could not independently verify these claims.
Woodell said the Secret Service agent would not identify himself on the four separate calls, which Woodell said he made in June, July, August and October. On request by a reporter, Woodell said he has since attempted to request his home phone records as proof that he had made the warning calls to the Secret Service, but was told by a Verizon representative after being put on hold that he would need "a court order" to see his itemized home call records.
"I know that he spoke to the Secret Service because I told him to call them and he called me after each and every call," said Harshman, an equestrian who lives in Middleburg. "I've met with the Secret Service on two separate occasions and told them that we called them to warn them, and they just nodded their heads and said nothing."
Edwin Donovan, a Department of Justice spokesman, would not comment about the case.
"This is an ongoing investigation by the Secret Service and the DOJ," he said. "As such, any comment could unfairly affect the outcome of the case. We need to be extremely fair to all parties involved, so we really can't comment."
Woodell also said the couple claimed to have met the president.
"Tareq told me on numerous occasions that President Obama gave him four choices of ambassador, and that he was the United States ambassador to Palestine," Woodell said.
Palestine is not recognized as a nation-state by the State Department, so there is no U.S. ambassador. "Who was I to disagree? I was just the limo driver."
Harshman said she received a phone call from Michaele in mid-January 2009, inviting her to the inaugural festivities. "'Oh sister! Are you coming to the inauguration?'" she said she was asked by Michaele. Harshman said Tareq got on the line and said: "We're really good friends with Obama. He's going to appoint me to an ambassadorship. He hasn't decided which one."
Harshman said Michaele called her after the inauguration, relating their experience.
Rachel Harshman, equestrian and former friend of Michaele Salahi. -- Photo by John Arundel
The official Virginia DMV title for the vehicle was registered to Virginia Wine Tourism Inc., which operated the Salahis' Virginia Wine Country Tours. Tareq resigned from his state-appointed post on the Virginia Wine Tourism Commission last December, but not before Woodell claims that he saw Tareq put numerous charges for the America's Cup of Polo on his state-issued credit card.
"They were always coming up with ways to beat the system," said Harshman, who said she spent the better part of the last decade with the Salahis, before splitting from them last May in a dispute over money.
Both Harshman and Woodell said that they saw a credit card machine next to Tareq's home computer, and that he used it frequently to deny or "charge back" credit card charges to merchants like hair salon appointments.
Indeed, an examination of the Salahis' Chapter 7 filing by their closely-held Oasis Enterprises Inc. with the Eastern District of Virginia Bankruptcy Court shows a pattern of credit card charge-backs, totaling $8,739.83.
A 'taste of the good life'
Rachel Cara Harshman met Michaele Holt in 1998 at an event in Washington, D.C., and said the two became fast friends, sharing the same likes and dislikes and a passion for the area's fast lane of social commerce, polo games, fine wine and successful men.
"I met Michaele during her B.T. days, or Before Tareq," Harshman said.
Harshman said Tareq was besotted by Michaele but she acted with indifference toward him. "Tareq was pursuing her," she recalled. "He did things like picking her up after work in a stretch limo. ... She was starting to get a taste of the good life."
Harshman was a bridesmaid at their 2003 wedding, an extravagant affair attended by this reporter at Dirgham and Corrine Salahi's Oasis Vineyard and featuring 50 bridesmaids and groomsmen, the release of 27 white doves outside the church, an expansive fireworks show and more than 800 guests.
Trouble grows on vineyard
Oasis Vineyard, the Fauquier County vineyard started by the elder Salahis in 1975 on a postage-stamp parcel near Hume, had long been the orbit by which Tareq and Michaele's life revolved, and their removal from it in 2007 after a family disagreement left both looking for the "next big thing to fund their lifestyles," Harshman said.
Salahi, now 40, was once enamored with his parents' wine business, apprenticing at vineyards in Australia and Napa Valley, and helped to build Oasis into an operation that sold 18,000 cases in 2007.
"My dad and I started side by side making the wines," Tareq said. "I planted my first vines when I was 8 years old, and this is the only thing I know ... Bushogging and bottling all these years."
But by 2007 the relationship between Tareq and his mother had fallen apart, under the weight of Corrine's accusations of overspending and financial mismanagement of the winery and its associated enterprises. What had begun as a simple country winery had grown into a sprawling suite of businesses, which included a bottled water business; a 12-vehicle fleet of limos, sedans, vans and motor coaches; two large yachts for hire; and a condo for rent in the Virgin Islands.
One day in summer 2007, Shaquille O'Neal, one of the world's best-known athletes, showed up at the vineyard, unannounced. Michaele, a former model who'd known O'Neal through charity circles, told me, "I just said to him, 'What are you doing here? And he said, 'I've been talking to Mrs. Salahi and I'm thinking of buying the vineyard.'"
According to court documents, O'Neal formed a company named Tuscan Ventures to buy the Oasis Vineyard. However, Salahi said it eventually became clear that O'Neal planned to own and operate the vineyard without him, and it was possible he might co-opt his ideas. "We had positive, productive meetings with Shaq and his people, but then things went south," Tareq recalled at the time.
Tareq blamed his mother for causing turmoil at the vineyard, claiming she "abused" vineyard employees with "bullying tactics" and "fabricated claims." During a recent visit to the winery, Corrine Salahi declined to comment.
The Fauquier County Sheriff's Office recorded 26 incident reports at the vineyard in 2007 alone, six naming Corrine Salahi, according to Maj. Paul Mercer, a spokesman. "We sent deputies out there quite a few times," Mercer said. "These cases involved everything from simple assault, motor vehicle theft, burglary and assault involving a family member."
In late 2007, the yearlong feud over Tareq's operation of Oasis came to closure in a Fauquier County courtroom, when attorneys presented Judge Jeffrey W. Parker with an agreed order that all parties would approve McLean Realtor N. Casey Margenau's offer to buy the property and assets of Oasis Vineyard Inc. for $4.15 million.
However, the deal came apart several months later when Margenau recalled the offer, telling this reporter that the vineyard's purchase price was "wildly inflated" and that Oasis and its wine-making equipment was "old, broken down, and in major disrepair."
The family saga may take a new turn as investigators from Congress, the FBI, Secret Service, State of Virginia Consumer Affairs and Loudoun County Sheriff's Office hone in on the couple.
"All you hear is the negative things about us but we were just victims of a bad economy," Tareq said. "There is a reason why the White House isn't promoting the story ... They have the documents which show that we are innocent. We have the cell phone records and the videos from that evening taken while Michaele was getting ready at Erwin Gomez salon. These tell quite a different story."