Is One Touch Too Much For Adams Morgan Bar?
Madam's Organ, the iconic bar that has survived decades of shifting nightlife trends in Adams Morgan, is nobody's idea of a demure spot for an intimate evening. Heck, it's a blues bar, the kind of place that gets written up in Playboy and highlighted on lists of the "20 Best Dives in America."
The saloon's owner, Bill Duggan, is no shrinking violet. He's what every great urban neighborhood needs, a fiery fighter for what he thinks is right, even if it's a battle over whether it's ok to keep a signature outdoor mural that features bulging,13-foot breasts.
But when the District's Alcoholic Beverage Control board meets this morning, its members will decide whether to strip Madam's Organ of its liquor license--a move that Duggan protests is wildly out of line with his alleged misdeed.
The story began late one night in June of 2007, when an Arlington woman was sitting at the Madam's bar with her boyfriend. Suddenly, she felt someone reach over and grab her side near her waist.
"Stop that," the woman said, "you can't touch me." She told her boyfriend what had happened, and before she knew it, the unknown man had touched her again.
According to testimony in the Superior Court case that grew out of the incident, the woman asked a bartender to intercede and was told that "they did not see anything happen and they were not going to kick him out and that we should all make friends." The woman and her boyfriend didn't like that solution, so they left. Outside, they found a D.C. police officer, who then accompanied the couple back inside the bar so they could point out the man who had committed the improper touching.
D.C. police records show that the officer then arrested a customer for improper touching--but only after the bar's bouncer claimed that the offending patron had already been kicked out of the premises, which he had not.
That twist in the story--which the D.C. attorney general's office is apparently interpreting as willful deception--helped lead to the city's charge that Madam's Organ allowed itself to be used for "an unlawful or disorderly purpose," which is grounds for losing its license.
"It's totally absurd," says Duggan. "The city went straight from the complaint to a notice of revocation. There was an incident, and the guy reached over the boyfriend and touched the woman. He was arrested and we thought that was the end of it. A guy touching a woman on her thigh or hip in a bar--somehow, I don't think that's the first time that's happened in a bar."
Court testimony indicates, however, that the touching nearly escalated into a much more violent exchange. The woman's boyfriend told the court that the offending man put his face "perhaps two to three inches from mine and that's when he started basically urging me to engage into a bar brawl."
Duggan argues that even if his staff didn't do everything possible to handle that incident effectively, a single incident between customers ought not be the basis for stripping a business of its right to exist.
City alcohol beverage control officials tell me that prosecutors don't necessarily wait to see a pattern of misbehavior and do occasionally move against a bar's license based on a single incident.
But the District's own report on the matter notes that D.C. investigators watched the staff at Madam's Organ checking IDs at the door and found that the bar employs five security personnel on weekend nights and uses seven surveillance cameras--hardly the actions of a nightspot that is neglecting its duty to provide a safe setting.
Duggan and his supporters wonder if the District is particularly interested in going after Madam's Organ because of its owner's outspoken style and persistent criticism of city officials.
Other than a noise violation in 2005 that brought a $500 fine and a five-day license suspension, the only other trouble Madam's Organ has had with city authorities came about in 2007, when Duggan had to pay a $250 fine for failing to file his quarterly statement on time.
That's hardly the track record of a place that needs to be shut down. Today, the ABC board gets to decide whether to seek to silence a pesky businessman or to direct their energies instead to those nightspots around town where violence occurs often and where owners aren't remotely as responsible as Duggan.
7 P.M. UPDATE: The ABC board spent most of its day hearing testimony and argument in the Madam's Organ case and decided at day's end to take the case under advisement. Decision to be announced at a later date.
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