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Vets Issues

Volunteers were asked to donate money. Officials are looking into whether the promoter committed financial fraud.

By Keith L. Alexander and Meg Smith

Reporting from Washington — Angela Luckey was excited about working her first inaugural ball. The Obamas were supposed to be there. Maybe the Clintons too. And two dozen beauty queens. The $250 and $500 tickets would go to a good cause: injured Iraq war veterans. She signed up as a volunteer on the website and enlisted two friends to join her.

Then she met the promoter, Darryl Dante Hayes.

No sooner had Hayes picked up Luckey and her friends at the airport than he told them that the Veterans Presidential Inaugural Ball wouldn’t be held at the downtown St. Regis Hotel after all, but at a Hilton in the Virginia suburbs.

Then he asked the three from Grand Prairie, Texas, to put $64,000 in ball expenses on their personal credit cards.

“That’s when I knew something was wrong,” Luckey said last week.

The day before it was to take place, the ball was canceled with no explanation, although some tickets had been sold. The $50,000 check Hayes gave the St. Regis for a security deposit bounced, a hotel official said. The hotel and volunteers said they repeatedly tried to reach Hayes by phone and e-mail but never got a response.

The veterans ball is the only one of 10 official and 45 unofficial inaugural balls under investigation. The U.S. attorney’s office, Secret Service and D.C. attorney general’s office are looking into whether Hayes committed financial fraud, officials at the agencies said.

Hayes is a longtime Republican who ran an inaugural ball for George W. Bush in 2001. This year, he advertised his veterans ball on area radio stations and on the website of the Congressional Education Foundation for Public Policy, which he runs.

Reached at his mother’s home in Baltimore, Hayes, 52, said he was forced to cancel after all but two of the ball’s 15 corporate sponsors pulled their support. Hayes said he had expected they would each contribute $10,000 to $15,000.

The Psychiatric Service Dog Society, an Arlington County, Va., group that places guide dogs with the disabled, donated $5,000. Its president, Joan Esnayra, said the money had not been refunded.

Hayes originally said he would share the list of the remaining 14 corporate sponsors with the Washington Post but called back to say he could not find the list. He said he thought he left the list in a rental car.

He says he intends to refund the money raised for the ball, whose problems were first reported in the Air Force Times.

“I’m getting the short end of the stick for trying to help these veterans, but I did nothing wrong,” he said in a telephone interview.

Hayes’ financial problems date to the 1990s, when he accumulated more than $330,000 in unpaid taxes, according to court documents. He filed for bankruptcy protection in the District of Columbia five times between 2001 and 2003. A Maryland civil suit led to a $2.85-million default judgment against him in 2003 for breach of contract, fraud and misrepresentation.

Hayes said his personal affairs had nothing to do with his desire to help veterans.

When most of the ball sponsors failed to come up with the money, Hayes said, he spent a week scrambling to find replacements. He said that was when he asked volunteers to donate too.

Nikki Slater, 17, Miss Teen Montana Galaxy from Missoula, was one. She was to have been one of 24 pageant winners working as greeters. She was instructed to bring a gown and her crown and sash.

Her mother, Debbie Slater, insisted that she and her husband chaperon. Hayes agreed to cover their expenses too.

The Slaters bought Nikki a gown. She was interviewed by the hometown newspaper for a profile about the local girl flying to Washington for a ball.

Less than a week before the inauguration, the Slaters had not received plane tickets or hotel reservations. Debbie Slater said they called Hayes, who assured them that they would have their itinerary in hand that evening. Then, Slater said, Hayes asked her to make a donation. Slater said he told her he would repay them after the ball when the donations were tallied. The Slaters donated $5,000.

The tickets never came. And since then, Slater said, Hayes had not returned calls or e-mails.

Hayes said he would issue a $5,000 refund to her credit card. He said that he never intended to mislead donors and that he would make full refunds.

“I wanted to raise money to buy houses for families of injured veterans,” he said.

“I wasn’t trying to do anything wrong. I’m going to show the world I didn’t take the money and run.”

Alexander and Smith write for the Washington Post.

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