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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.

By Marc Fisher |  January 7, 2009; 7:58 AM ET
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This story is a huge joke. You know how many times girls have felt me up in bars and clubs in Adams Morgan only for me to whisk the drunkards away from me?

People will get the law involved in anything they can't settle themselves like grown adults...sheesh. Leave the establishment out of this. People do it ALL the time.

If you don't want it to happen, then don't go. Plain and simple.

Posted by: cbmuzik | January 7, 2009 9:27 AM

While the overall point of Marc's story may be true (that rescinding the bar's liquor license is a little out of line with the crime), I don't appreciate his blase attitude to the two crimes that took place here. First, this is unquestionably sexual assault, or at minimum, just regular assault. The woman said to stop, the offender did it again. To act like this behavior is not a problem, or that the woman overblew the problem, is a serious offense to women everywhere. It's irrelevant that this took place in a bar. Women are not "asking for it" by coming to bars, as another poster suggests. Women don't like it, they don't want it, and they have a legal right to stop it.

The second crime of "willful deception" is also a very serious offense, even though Marc views it otherwise, which he makes known when he stated that the city was "apparently interpreting as willful deception." Clearly Marc has no respect for this characterization. But the bartender is so patently breaking a serious law. If someone witnessed a misdemeanor theft, and saw the thief run into a house, called the police and directed the police to the house, and the police knocked on the door where the homeowner lied and said the thief had already left the premises when in fact they had not, this is so obviously a serious offense. It's called accessory after the fact and is almost always punishable. Marc seems to think that the setting here (a bar) makes it okay for the bartender to lie to cops??

Marc - I usually agree with you but you are so clearly writing from an unjustifiable and offensive bias on this one.

Posted by: coops905 | January 7, 2009 9:44 AM

The owner ought to fire that stupid bartender -- touching a woman without her permission is always a big deal. It doesn't sound like cause to remove a liquor license, but the author seems to brush over this aspect of the story as inconsequential.

Posted by: dbunkr | January 7, 2009 10:01 AM

I guess Marc could have a more explicit statement somewhere in there that he doesn't agree with Duggan's characterization of the incident, but just quoting Duggan does not imply that Marc does agree with Duggan's characterization. There, Marc is doing that whole "reporting" thing, where you get people involved to tell you what they think happened. I realize it's odd on a blog, but them's the breaks.

The escalation of the incident in terms of potentially shutting down Madam's Organ is completely ridiculous and another example of what happens when you give a bureaucracy power that it doesn't need - it'll be exercised arbitrarily.

Posted by: Lindemann777 | January 7, 2009 10:26 AM

The crime here is assault by the patron. The other possible crime is a bartender lying/misleading police.

why does either of those things have much relevance to the liquor license? Why isn't DC spending its time prosecuting the assaultor or even the bartender, if the facts are as claimed?

Posted by: ah___ | January 7, 2009 10:42 AM

I'm sure the puritans have had their sights set on Madam's Organ for quite a while. If one middle-class cow from Arlington getting groped is the best they can come up with, it ought to be the end of the story.

Posted by: lioninzion | January 7, 2009 10:45 AM

When it comes to touching someone else, No means No.

Posted by: Bitter_Bill | January 7, 2009 11:05 AM

The boyfriend should have been a man and taken care of this problem himself.

Posted by: DC2Amsterdam | January 7, 2009 11:29 AM

Can we at least see pictures of the gropee?

Posted by: MajorConfusion | January 7, 2009 11:36 AM

People seem to be giving the alleged victim too much credence. No one at the bar, including the bartender, saw the alleged crime. Why should the "victim" be believed? Should bartenders or bouncers throw out every patron who gets accused by some unknown person of a "touching" with no evidence that supports the allegation.

Posted by: shoveit | January 7, 2009 11:40 AM

In response to the claims of assault, I can't help but think of this classic line from "Big Trouble"

Bruce: I hope you realize you've just committed assault.
Henry Desalvo: I know, I know. Time was, you actually had to hit somebody.

I've lived in DC for 15 years and have been pushed, grabbed, hit, shoved, tripped, cornered and had drinks thrown/spilled on me dozens, if not hundreds of times, and never felt the need to go running to the police.

I think it is a sad reflection of society that people feel the need to involve law enforcement and local government regulatory authorities to resolve the issue of someone touching a woman's waist.

And this seems politically motivated to me. There are numerous bars that are much worse in terms of inappropriate touching that have not been targetted by authorities. If they want to clean up DC, they should close down most of the bars in the Herpes Triangle, er, I mean Golden Triangle area.

Posted by: huberh1 | January 7, 2009 11:41 AM

Madam's Organ is a great bar with a strong reputation in D.C. and it is a shame for them to lose their license due to a mis-step by the bartender or bouncer. This situation could have happened in any number of bars and should be, or should have been dealt with properly. That does not mean Madam's Organ should no longer be allowed to practice the business they do so well.

Posted by: lclcl33 | January 7, 2009 11:42 AM

Here's what I think.

The bartender and/or bouncer ought to be fired. The touching was an assault. If the bartender and bouncer had done their jobs the police wouldn't have to get involved.

If there were jail time for bad taste in bars (note: NOT "asking for it"), this couple would be doing it.

Duggan's not my kind of person.

That doesn't mean DC's Historic Preservation Board shouldn't be cut from the budget.

In other words, a pox on all their houses.

Posted by: csdiego | January 7, 2009 11:44 AM

I want to make one analogy, and then let readers know a little about the man and establishment in question, and how he stands in contrast to many absentee club owners on the 18th Street strip.

Think for just a moment about how states, including DC, oversee the ability to operate a motor vehicle. A credible argument can be made that one poses a much more immediate threat to public safety behind the wheel of a car than operating a neighborhood-anchoring, stalwart blues and live music restaurant and bar. For those who drive recklessly and at speeds beyond the posted limit, points are assessed on one's record, and the license is suspended once these collective infractions surpass a certain level. Provided the infraction is not overly egregious, such as drunk driving, or driving at speeds over 100 mph, there aren't any transgressions which proceed straight to the revocation of privileges. It's a decent model to compare to the conduct and safe operation of establishments which serve alcohol.

What's at work here is more than likely the influence of an isolated one or two neighborhood ANC-type officials, who have blinders on when it comes to the nightlife situation on 18th on the weekends.

I wonder if these same people ever notice when Bill hosts weekly fundraisers for worthy non-profits, on Thursday nights by the way. I wonder how much they discount his commitment to the local community, and especially, its children. He has been taking, at his own expense, local school children, for years, for a summer vacation to his beach property. For these kids, it's something they look forward to literally all year long, and very likely might not otherwise experience on their own.

If the incident was to be treated on its merits, and it seems a rather mild one, it would have already been unceremoniously resolved. By pressing this matter to the presipus of an ultimate punishment for a tavern owner, it reflects more on the petitioners and bureaucrats than it does Bill Duggan and Madams Organ.

Posted by: janthony11 | January 7, 2009 12:11 PM

Another shockingly fascist deed from DC government.

I lay responsibility for this squarely at the feet of DC Attorney General Nickles, along with all the other fascist innovations he has presided over: neighborhood checkpoints, the house-to-house weapons search program, the police chief subpoena initiative, and, of course, the whole "we'll make it bureaucratically impossible to legally own a gun despite the Supreme Court repeal of the DC gun ban" charade.

Nickles must go.

Posted by: DupontJay | January 7, 2009 1:33 PM

Instead of going after community-based businesses with good track records, let's focus on serious crimes. The District is still reeling from the $50M tax schemes and improving the education system.

What purpose does going after this business do to help anyone? The couple was offended, apologies made, end of story. I am wont to think these folks are related to the lawyer who keeps suing the dry cleaning folks. Respectable businesses should not have to put up with such flagrant abuse.

In both cases, the complaintants cannot prove the business owners were truly negligent. There are no sordid histories of crime, repeat offenses, belligerent ownership issues. These folks are trying to run businesses which support the local economy.

We need more public outrage when the actions of 1 or 2 people affect the livelihood, happiness and general well-bing of entire communities. Hundreds of people lost a good dry cleaning shop becuase of one idiot. Now hundreds if not thousands will lose a respectable fun loving bar because of two people who were offended.

Come on, let the greater good prevail. Please!

Posted by: fide | January 7, 2009 1:57 PM

Oh my god - if I had a dollar for every unwelcome guy who gave me a squeeze while drunk (and more than a few had "Roman" hands so they touched a lot more than my side), I wouldn't be worrying about the economy.

I've got an idea - let's shut down Metro, while we're at it. Because more than once over the years I had a few sleazy guys grope my derrière under the cover of a sardine-can tight train (and I'm not confusing copping a feel with getting being crushed into the train car with some unfortunate/embarassing hand placement).

It's offensive to me that Metro and the MPD did nothing about it *sob*. I'm an adult woman who can't possibly speak up for herself and/or remove the offensive hand myself with a withering barb, so Metro's gotta go!

Snark aside, I'm not saying it's socially acceptable to be drunk and hand-sy in a bar. But if you live in a big city and you go out to a bar famous for being a wee bit scuzzy (but in a good way :D), don't be surprised if someone you don't know gives you a squeeze. Unless his hand was under her clothes, I can't understand the severity of the reaction.

And I'm sorry, but "Stop that - you can't touch me"? Are you trying to encourage continued "inappropriate touching"? That's a phrase guaranteed to do it. Hell, my 7 year old nephew would squeeze you again - "See - I *can* touch you!"

Posted by: Chasmosaur1 | January 7, 2009 2:18 PM

While I agree wholeheartedly that the situation, as described, accurately led to the arrest of the perpetrator. I have to relate a story that happened to a friend of mine around 2002. He was waiting to order at a bar when a drunk woman spun around and spilled beer on him, she loudly accused this 5 foot 4 gay Indian man of grabbing her and called him several Anti-Latin slurs. The bouncers removed him bodily from the premises amongst MANY complaints from people who saw it. So not only did he lose his money for the beer, lose the money he paid to see the band, he was bodily hurt by the bouncers and accused of grabbing a woman sexually which if you knew this flamboyant guy, was patently absurd AND in direct contradiction by other people who witnessed this incident. But the woman was all huggy to the muscly bouncer and as feminist as I am, I know a ploy to get a guy's attention and that woman got it.

Therefore, I view such alcohol-laden stories with a critical eye.

Posted by: bbcrock | January 7, 2009 4:51 PM

Come on, this dive is an institution in DC and without it Adams Morgan would be taken over by fern bars, franchises, and pizza joints. I have always made it a point to stop in on open mike night to see various local and national performers entertain the gentry that hangs out here. I met Daniel Pearl here you know the NY Times journalist that got his head lopped off by the wacky Pakistanis and shown on Al-Jazerra TV. Doug McKelway shows up with his troupe of reporters to play his banjo as do other famous and not so famous players. What do you expect from one of the last best original bars left in DC, sure there are going to be stupid drunks groping the fine ladies in that place and the bouncers and bartenders do all they can to keep the peace in this place. What is the true agenda of the DC board here? Is it pay to play like in Chicago, not enough bribe money to the liquor control board to shut them up?

Posted by: Sideswiped | January 7, 2009 5:19 PM

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