Video: Salahis silent on White House party

updated 1/20/2010 1:42:36 PM ET 2010-01-20T18:42:36

White House gate crashers Tareq and Michaele Salahi invoked their Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination Wednesday, refusing to answer a House committee's questions about their uninvited appearance at a state dinner.

The jet-setting Virginia couple repeatedly said they were remaining silent on advice of counsel, but that didn't prevent members of the Homeland Security Committee from peppering them with questions about how they got through Secret Service checkpoints on Nov. 24.

Tareq Salahi read an opening statement in which he offered to have the couple's lawyers provide information about their appearance at the dinner for the prime minister of India. Committee Chairman Bennie Thompson, D-Miss., rejected the offer.

A federal grand jury is investigating the Salahis to learn how they got past the Secret Service without invitations and shook hands with President Barack Obama.

The Salahis' attorney, Stephen Best, said in an interview prior to the hearing that the couple believed they were invited to an arrival ceremony for the prime minister and the White House receiving line for the dinner.

The couple was auditioning for a reality television show, "The Real Housewives of DC." The White House incident led to an apology from the U.S. Secret Service, and three officers of its officers were placed on administrative leave.

Members of the committee repeatedly told the Salahis that the safety of the president was not a joke, although some of the questions from frustrated committee members were less than serious. One even asked whether the couple, sitting facing the lawmakers, were in the committee room. They also were asked whether they tried to trick the Secret Service to get into the event.

The couple — she dressed in a white jacket and skirt, he in a dark suit — said they would be willing to return and testify after the criminal investigation is finished.

Best, the Salahis' lawyer, said in the interview Tuesday that a grand jury is still hearing witnesses.

The couple could be charged under statutes that prohibit making false statements to federal agencies or using false pretenses to enter federal property.

Best said his clients "maintain their absolute innocence and have not committed any criminal wrongdoing whatsoever. They will contest any charges."

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While the Salahis have not testified before the grand jury, Best said they have cooperated fully with a Secret Service investigation. He insisted that his clients did not lie their way into the White House.

"They received verbal assurances they were invited to an event at the White House that they believed to be that evening. It was an innocent misunderstanding," he said.

Best said the couple did not know whether their invitation included the state dinner or the events leading up to it.

Image: Salahi
Chip Somodevilla  /  Getty Images
Michaele Salahi and her husband Tareq Salahi after refusing to testify to the House Homeland Security Committee on Wednesday.

Republicans on the Homeland Security Committee said the case partly tests the openness of the Obama administration because officials declined to allow White House social secretary Desiree Rogers to testify. Rogers was in charge of the dinner.

Much has been written about the Salahis jet-setting lifestyle and lawsuits trying to collect money they owed.

Rep. Eleanor Holmes Norton, the non-voting Democratic delegate from Washington, D.C., has criticized the Salahis, saying they accumulated unpaid bills to prepare for events like the state dinner.

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