From ‘Reality TV’ fluff to a REAL state security scandal

Local socialite couple’s state dinner foray focuses national media attention on Warren County

By Dan McDermott and Roger Bianchini
Warren County Report and The Sherando Times

[Note: Tareq Salahi has declined to speak with us on the record.]

Tuesday, November 24 should have been a night about the United States and India, the latter a nuclear power of 1.1 billion people and the most populous democracy in the world. President Obama’s first White House State Dinner in honor of Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh was a glitzy affair and the hottest ticket in town.

In attendance were two Linden, VA residents. Tareq Salahi, famous for a long-running feud with his mother over control of the family’s Hume, VA Oasis Winery and his wife Michaele, who is set to be the star of next year’s Real Housewives of Washington, DC on the Bravo cable network and NBC-owned stations.

The big news story following the state dinner should have been about solidifying U.S. ties with a major player on the Asian subcontinent.

But that was not to be.

Early on Thanksgiving Day, two Washington Post reporters dropped a bombshell. Amy Argetsinger and Roxanne Roberts wrote in their column The Reliable Source that the Salahis were not on the guest list and that they had left after cocktails since they had no seat.

Immediately our Blackberries began ringing.

Reporters from across the country started Googling Tareq and Michaele Salahi and found the only recent news stories about them prior to the state dinner were in Warren County Report and The Sherando Times. We had exclusively reported that the entire Real Housewives cast had taped at Oasis Winery Nov. 7th.

Since our papers had been the only ones to have recently covered the Salahis we were swamped with interview requests. The national media arrived in force within hours. We were interviewed by too many outlets to count including D.C. TV stations, the Washington Post reporters who broke the story and on Good Morning America and Fox News Channel.

A big question a lot of folks were asking is were we surprised?

No. – Gov. Tim Kaine, who appointed Tareq Salahi to a state tourism board, said it best in noting that if someone had told him that a Virginia couple had crashed a White House state dinner and he had to guess who, out of 6.5 million Virginians he would have guessed Tareq and Michaele.

Another prominent question – how was the couple viewed in their current home County of Warren, and the Northern Shenandoah Valley region where the family’s winery and vineyard business is located?

Talk to friends of the couple and Tareq might be described as the polo-playing prince and international good-will ambassador of Oasis Vineyard.

Talk to others, including current staff at the winery and contemporaries of Tareq’s parents, Dirgham and Corinne Salahi, and the view is more likely be of a dilettante couple of name-dropping, jet-set want-to-be’s, and bankrupters of the family business.

Another big question everyone was asking was whether the couple would be pursued by authorities. After all, the Salahis had broken state security surrounding the President of the United States at a time of high international tension.

We answered that question at noon on Friday Nov. 27, reporting that U.S. Secret Service agents were at Oasis Winery less than one hour earlier looking for Tareq and Michaele Salahi to question them about their uninvited appearance at the White House.

According to Oasis Winery manager Diane Weiss, two SUV’s were waiting near the entrance gate when Weiss arrived to open the winery at about 11 a.m. for tastings.

Weiss said one SUV was at the entrance and the other was further up the road.

When Weiss arrived, two agents – one male and one female – said they wished to speak with Tareq and Michaele Salahi. Weiss said she told the agents that they did not live there and hadn’t since 2006. The agents asked why they had a mailbox there. Weiss explained that it is an ongoing issue and that they do receive mail there and list Oasis Winery as their home address on their driver’s license, but actually reside in a house in Linden.

Weiss said the agents were pleasant but in a hurry. “We are not here to arrest the Salahi’s today. It is imperative that we speak with them. If they do not sit down with us and talk we will take whatever action necessary,” Weiss quoted the male agent as saying.

Weiss said the agents spoke with Corinne Salahi, Tareq’s mother, before leaving.

‘Concerned and embarrassed’

A few hours later, Secret Service Director Mark Sullivan issued the following statement:

“The Secret Service is deeply concerned and embarrassed by the circumstances surrounding the State Dinner on Tuesday, November 24.

“The preliminary findings of our internal investigation have determined established protocols were not followed at an initial checkpoint, verifying that two individuals were on the guest list.

“Although these individuals went through magnetometers and other levels of screening, they should have been prohibited from entering the event entirely. That failing is ours.

“The Secret Service safely processed more than 1.2 million visitors last year to the White House complex. In the last several years, the agency has successfully protected more than 10,000 sites for the President, Vice President and other Secret Service protectees, screening more than 7 million people through magnetometers at campaign related events, with more than 1 million during the Inauguration alone.

Even with these successes, we need to be right 100% of the time. While we have protocols in place to address these situations, we must ensure that they are followed each and every time.

As our investigation continues, appropriate measures have been taken to ensure this is not repeated.

The men and women of the U.S. Secret Service are committed to providing the highest level of security for those we are charged to protect, and we will do whatever is necessary to accomplish this mission.”

Limo, dog but no Tareq or Michaele

On Saturday Nov. 28, a Salahi neighbor told us news reporters and photographers from all over the country – and a few feds in unmarked SUVs – had steadily streamed past the Salahi home since Thanksgiving.

The couple’s white stretch limo was parked in the driveway of the house and a dog, presumably Michaele’s doberman Rio, could be heard barking and moving inside the home. A sign near the front door was posted that said “Hi Dana, Thanks for watching the dog. See you after weekend.”

Warren County Sheriff Daniel McEathron said his office had not received any complaints about the couple’s dog but that his office planned to make contact to check on the animal’s welfare.

Tasha Smelser, who has worked at the Salahi family’s Oasis Winery off and on since 2005, described Rio as “very sweet and gentle.”

“I watched him for a week in 2005 when Tareq and Michael went on vacation. If they go to jail I hope I get to keep him,” she said.

The Salahis live on the normally quiet Scenic Overlook Dr., a pavement and gravel road in the 5-home Mosby Estates subdivision near Linden, in eastern Warren County about 65 miles west of Washington, D.C.

Pausing for a moment while riding on horseback past the Salahis house, homeowners association president Travis Frantz, who has battled his controversial neighbors for years over unpaid association dues, said he hopes the Salahi’s are “not in this community much longer.” Frantz said he has been visited by sheriff’s deputies a few times since he bought his home in 2006 looking to serve papers on the Salahis but said he had not been contacted by the Secret Service.

Frantz said he nor his wife had seen the Salahis since Michaele was spotted at the mailbox with her Audi on Wednesday, the day before the state dinner scandal broke.

We learned that the Salahis returned to their home Saturday night, Nov. 28.

Abusive, angry calls

On Sunday, Nov. 29 Diane Weiss told us that Oasis Winery had been getting some disturbing calls.

Weiss, who has worked at Oasis Winery since 2007, said the callers are dialing the wrong number. “If they want to vent to Tareq and Michaele, they need to call America’s Polo Cup. Tareq and Michaele have no affiliation with Oasis anymore,” she said.

Weiss said the winery had received about 7 abusive calls in the past few days. “Most are just nuisance calls. One said ‘You are terrorists who need to be removed from face of earth,’” she said.

Weiss said she has had to unplug the phones for periods of time and has plugged them back in periodically to check messages.

“Tareq and Michaele have not lived here since 2006. In Feb. 2008 the courts removed them from any affiliation with Oasis Winery,” she said.

Weiss said she hasn’t called police since the calls aren’t clearly threatening. “I know these are angry people. I understand that. But they don’t need to call us. I just don’t want some crackpot coming up here thinking Tareq and Michaele are part of Oasis Winery anymore. They don’t live here or work here or have anything to do with us,” she said.

Weiss said she planned to contact authorities if the calls get more threatening.

For now, Weiss said, she hopes to see more customers in to taste wine and fewer reporters.

Oasis Winery remains open for business on the weekends and is controlled by Corinne. That said, Tareq and Corinne have competing websites. Corinne controls http://oasiswines.net while Tareq has http://www.oasiswine.com. Interestingly, Tareq’s site claims he founded Oasis. The winery was founded in 1977 when Tareq was nine.

Black Caucus

Later Sunday, Nov. 29, our friends at Fox 5 in Washington reported that Tareq and Michaele also crashed the Congressional Black Caucus Foundation’s annual awards dinner in September. Multiple sources told Fox 5’s Will Thomas the couple snuck in through a bus boy entrance and were told to leave when they were caught by an official.

During a Dec. 1 Legislative Report to the Warren County Board of Supervisors, 18th District Virginia State Delegate Clifford L. “Clay” Athey joked that Tareq and Michaele Salahi had attended a past re-election fundraiser of his, but that he was not sure they had been invited guests then either.

Salahi’s leave their home

Two satellite vans, SUVs and cars filled with national, regional and local news reporters kept watch over the Salahi home again Monday, Nov. 30.

CBS News got a big scoop when they taped the Salahi’s white Audi with temporary tags.

The Warren County Sheriff’s Office sent two deputies to escort the couple out.

Crews from ABC, NBC 4, The Washington Post, Time Life were also at the home.

The Melting Pot, a 5-star Google rated pizza joint in Front Royal brought 5 pizzas up to the Salahis house to feed the rain-soaked reporters.

It was a hit. CBS went crazy. New York Post photographer Bill Farrington looked us squarely in the eye and said, “Bro, I don’t normally eat pizza outside of New York. But that was some good pizza.”

Oasis chained

Tuesday, Dec. 1 we reported that while network news reporters were abuzz about rumors of a planned post-Today Show party for Tareq and Michaele Salahi that evening at Oasis Winery in Hume, VA, Oasis tasting manager Diane Weiss said that she and winery owner Corinne Salahi had no knowledge of any such plans. Weiss said Mrs. Salahi planned to chain the entrance gate shut for the evening.

Earlier Tuesday, Tareq and Michaele were escorted to their Linden, VA home by two Warren County sheriff’s office vehicles, while two other sheriff’s cruisers stood guard on nearby John Marshall Highway. About 6pm, Michaele left the home in a black chauffeur-driven Town Car, presumably the same Lincoln that shuttled the Salahi’s to and from their softball interview with Today’s Matt Lauer that morning.

Michaele arrived at a Starbucks on Rt. 234 in Manassas, VA around 6:45pm where she greeted friends who, along with young men who said they work at Starbucks, proceeded to block reporters and photographers from getting close to the coffee shop. Michaele’s black-suited driver went into Starbucks to get her a drink. A Prince William County Police officer arrived shortly thereafter and Michaele left for destinations unknown after speeding through a red light out of view of the officer.

As of 10 p.m., from behind a chained entrance gate at Oasis Winery, it appeared that there was no party and that Corinne and her husband Dirgham Salahi had settled in for the night.

Early Tuesday, Michaele Salahi was adamant she was not being paid to appear on NBC’s The Today Show. However, a source very close to Michaele who spoke on the condition they not be named, said that Michaele, but not Tareq was being paid an appearance fee for her participation in the Real Housewives of Washington, DC. The show is slated to air next year on the Bravo Network and on NBC-owned TV stations. Bravo is owned by NBC.

It would seem that it would not have been necessary for the Today Show to pay the Salhis for their appearance were Michaele already on an indirect NBC payroll.

Wednesday, Dec. 2 we assigned our reporter Matt Kreitz to cover and live-blog from Thursday’s congressional hearing. From the beginning, no one thought they would testify. Late that evening we learned that they had declined. At 10:26 p.m. we posted the following at http://www.warrencountyreport.com: “Salahis won’t testify. Matt Kreitz will live to live-blog another day.”

Follow Dan on Twitter and Facebook.

Published in: on December 3, 2009 at 2:20 am  Comments (3)  

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3 CommentsLeave a comment

  1. Remember it’s YOUR time to shine too. Which I think you are doing quite well at, with your coverage. You have the background knowledge of the area and the people, and are the expert that the new-to-town news people will turn to.

    It’s a good time to make connections with other news people, and to be their source on things happening in your area.

    Half the news battle seems to be having good sources. And this whole Salahi thing is far from over. If they never do anything bad ever again, there is still years of fixing up the things they’ve already done. And plenty more lawsuits that will undoubtedly be filed.

    Since you may be getting a ton more traffic, it’s a good time to look for advertisers too. They would have a nationwide audience. And the image of the Shenandoah State Park looks lovely. Might draw some tourism. Probably a lot more tourists than the Salahis can possibly generate at this time.

  2. Oasis claims to be one of the world’s top 10 wineries. They claim they won gold medals. Apart from their claims I cannot find a single mention of this winery winning anything ever.

    I am guessing their winery claims are lies as well.

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