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White House intruders want to sell their tale

NYT: As White House officials fend off new questions about how a fame-seeking couple finessed their way into a glittering state dinner, the pair begin trying to sell their story.
/ Source: The New York Times

As White House officials fended off new questions about how a fame-seeking couple finessed their way into the president’s glittering state dinner last week, the aspiring reality-TV stars themselves began trying to sell their story for hundreds of thousands of dollars.

Television industry executives said on Saturday that Michaele and Tareq Salahi had postponed plans for an interview Monday on CNN’s “Larry King Live” and were seeking top-dollar bids for their first television interview.

The Salahis, who embarrassed the Secret Service by passing through its security screens as if invisible and then posed for the cameras with President Obama and many of his bona fide guests at a party honoring India’s leader, remained out of sight on Saturday and their spokeswoman did not return calls. The Secret Service would not comment or say whether investigators have interviewed the pair.

For years, the Salahis have publicized their own flashy adventures in the social and sporting scenes of Washington and its outlying horse country, and left behind a record of lawsuits and unpaid bills, many from the bankruptcy of the family vineyard after extended litigation between Mr. Salahi and his parents.

Even the upscale salon where Mrs. Salahi, with TV cameras in tow, was prepared for the big event had never been paid for its previous services in 2002 when the couple were married, the salon’s operators said in interviews.

As questions continued to swirl about the pair’s most remarkable appearance to date, a television network executive, who spoke on condition of anonymity because the network does not publicly comment on payments, said the couple’s asking price for an interview was in the hundreds of thousands of dollars. CNN confirmed that the appearance on Mr. King’s talk show was postponed on Friday.

Meanwhile, several invited guests who had entered the White House through the same entrance as the Salahis said that the Secret Service’s normal security check-in process, familiar to many of them after years in political circles, had been haphazard.

They said Secret Service guards had not directed the visitors through the well-equipped guardhouse with its metal detector and X-ray screeners, located just inside the east entrance to the White House. Instead, after guards glanced at their ID cards in the dark, they had to wait in a chilly mist outside the East Wing portico. Then they were funneled to a portable metal detector but no X-ray scanner for checking purses and other belongings.

Though the Salahis were not national celebrities, at least until their adventure at the White House, they had assiduously cultivated their image as politically well-connected local socialites in Washington.

Michaele Salahi has described herself as a former cheerleader for the Washington Redskins, and boasted about her work for high-profile charities. Mr. Salahi, born in Washington, was chief executive of Oasis Winery, a now-bankrupt winery in Virginia that his father started in the 1970s. A polo player, Mr. Salahi also founded the America’s Polo Cup, an annual international match that takes place in Washington. The winery gave generously to the Wolf Trap cultural center’s foundation, where he was on the board for a few years. (Traditionally, the first lady is the foundation’s figurehead patron.)

The couple was in a well-publicized family feud involving the sale of the winery. The family put the winery up for sale in 2007, but Mr. Salahi became embroiled in a fight over control with his parents, Dirgham and Corinne Salahi. The winery filed for bankruptcy in February.

Still, the Salahis moved through Washington’s social elite with a sense of privilege.

For her wedding, Michaele had her hair and makeup done at the Erwin Gomez Salon, an exclusive establishment in Georgetown that says it helped prepare members of the Obama family on Inauguration Day.

But James Packard-Gomez, the salon’s creative director, said in an interview on Saturday that even though Mrs. Salahi had never paid her bill, she continued to book appointments and the salon continued to serve her.

Indeed, the salon spent seven hours preparing Ms. Salahi for Tuesday’s state dinner as a camera crew from Bravo network’s local production contractor recorded the preparations.

“She’d always call and want to come in, but always expected Erwin to comp her,” Mr. Parker-Gomez complained, referring to his partner at the salon.

Mr. Gomez said Mrs. Salahi called him just 20 hours before the state dinner to schedule an appointment. Mr. Gomez dropped everything, he said, even helping Mrs. Salahi arrange her now famous red sari. She mentioned having asked the White House if it was appropriate attire. But when he asked Mrs. Salahi to show him her White House invitation, he was startled that she could not produce it.

“My guests pretty always much show me the invitation when it’s the hottest party in town,” Mr. Gomez said. “I know a lot a guests that were on the ‘A list’ that were not invited. So why was she?”

The Secret Service, which has said that they should not have been let in, acknowledged that officials at the White House east gate “did not follow proper procedures” to confirm that Mr. and Mrs. Salahi were on the list of invited guests.

On Saturday, neither White House officials nor the Secret Service would comment on why guests had initially been screened in the dark, where it was difficult even to read the names on driver’s licenses, and why guards had not examined their belongings in the way that is common even in less prominent federal office buildings and popular public museums.

Edwin M. Donovan, special agent in charge of the Secret Service, said he could not provide additional details about the screening procedures that either were in use or were supposed to be in use at the state dinner on Tuesday night.

But Mr. Donovan said, “The procedures don’t change because of the event taking place.” The Secret Service publicly apologized on Friday for the security breach, and Mr. Donovan said he hoped to provide a fuller explanation about what went wrong “in the next couple of days.”

Janie Lorber contributed reporting.

This article, , first appeared in The New York Times.