Tareq Salahi accused of charging wine tour guests more than expected

(WJLA) - The wine tour company run by Tareq Salahi is coming under increased scrutiny after another person came forward with claims that she was unexpectedly charged hundreds of dollars more than she expected.

In November, Virginia resident Eddie Engles told 7 On Your Side that he had been charged hundreds of dollars extra for a tour he booked through - a charge he didn't expect.

Engles said that after purchasing a $1,500 tour through the site, his credit card was charged an extra $723 for the use of a minibus - a charge he said wasn't authorized.

Not only was Engles not alone, another person says the same thing happened to her.

D.C. resident Ebonie Johnson Cooper says she and her friends bought a wine tour through the same site to celebrate her 30th birthday. She paid $807 by check for what she thought was an all-inclusive trip for group of 10 to visit three wineries.

Days later, though, she says she got another bill for $702 for the limousine used during the tour.

"If you charged us $800+, which was all-inclusive, and it was supposed to include the limo, you fraudulently use my card under someone else's name to book the limo," Cooper said. "Where'd the $800 go?"

In a November interview, Salahi said that it was "very, very clear" in the contract that tour guests were obligated to pay for the transportation.

While that document includes a reference to "3rd party billing," nowhere does it specifically and plainly say that any transportation for the wine tour will be charged separately or cost extra.

"They're having a blast, they're getting drunk, and it's usually when they are at that point when they want to start complaining," Salahi said.

The text of that language read:

AGREEMENT/GENERAL RELEASE: Client shall hold Wine Tour Co harmless from any claims or demands, including any resulting from death or personal injury arising from negligence. Client herewith releases from Wine Tour Co. any liability whatsoever from illness, injury, damage, delays and or death resulting from, but not restricted to, improper use and or consumption of Wine, alcoholic beverage, personal property, contracted or rented equipment or food consumed prior, post or during the special event or wine tour. Food & Wine not included.

Except as provided in this paragraph, Client shall hold Wine Tour Co. and their owners, directors, employees, agents and property landowners harmless from any claims or demands. You authorize us to use your credit card for these reservations as requested for reservations, incidentals, overtime if applicable and other necessary tour fees as may be charged by us or third parties designated by tour company.

The complaints from Engles and Cooper came after the Commonwealth's Attorney General filed a lawsuit in 2012 against Salahi after receiving 8 complaints about the wine tours on behalf of 100 customers.

He settled that suit for about $5,200 in May - without admitting fault - before Engles and Cooper came forward with their claims. Both also had their additional charges reversed.

Salahi continues to maintain that the 3rd party fees are disclosed in his paperwork and that the complaints are politically motivated. He did change the wording on his website after complaints were brought to his attention.

In response, the Commonwealth's Attorney General's office said that his claim of political motivation is "false and absurd on its face." The office says that Salahi has a history of consumer complaints about his business ventures, including and his Journey for the Cure Foundation.

The AG office's complete response read:

Salahi's claim of political motivation is false and absurd on its face - he wasn't on any ballot when these latest complaints were lodged against him by angry consumers.

Salahi has a history of consumer complaints about his business ventures - first with his Journey for the Cure Foundation, and then with his Virginia Wine Tours.

With Journey for the Cure, Salahi settled with the state for allegedly making false statements and submitting inaccurate financial statements to the commonwealth's overseer of charities. In one of the more egregious claims, JCF claimed on its web site, "Proudly, 100% of our financing goes directly to find the cure" for diseases such as multiple sclerosis, muscular dystrophy, leukemia, and lymphoma.

Based on bank records obtained through the Virginia Office of Consumer Affairs' investigation, it was alleged that only 33% of JCF's expenditures in 2007, and 0.6% of its expenditures in 2008 went directly to disease prevention-related charities. Attached FYI are copies of the complaint and consent judgment we filed in that matter in February 2012.

With Virginia Wine Tours, Salahi settled in May with the state again over alleged violations of the Virginia Consumer Protection Act, including not delivering tours as promised, not providing refunds for tours he canceled, and misrepresenting reputable businesses as "official partners." The settlement news release is below.

We received the recent complaint on October 27, and it relates to a wine tour taking place in late September 2013 (after our May settlement). The complaint - and any others - will be handled by our Dispute Resolution and Investigations Unit just like all other complaints. The first step in that process is providing a copy of the complaint to the business and inviting it to respond.