It was Friday, Feb. 23, and Cada Vez on U Street NW was throwing a dance party. To get the word out, promoters circulated an e-mail promising a show with “hot models wearing nothing but racy lingerie.” Customers were told to come in camo. “Sergeant Vinny will be checking if your boots are shined properly, and WILL make you do 50 pushups if he does not like what he sees!”
Sometime around 11 p.m., two girls, ages 15 and 17, entered the establishment. Both showed their own IDs at the door, and both girls’ hands were stamped with large X’s indicating they’re under 21. “The party had just started,” the 15-year-old said, and “there were only a few people on the dance floor.” She looked around. Lights flashed while a few dancers shimmied to techno beats. The women were wearing short skirts and open blouses, she remembers, making her feel “overdressed” in a long-sleeve T-shirt, jeans, and boots. The 15-year-old approached the bar to get a drink, placing both hands on the counter. The bartender gestured he’d be with her in a moment. She asked for a Heineken, and he handed her the beer.
As it turns out, the girl was part of the National Capital Coalition to Prevent Underage Drinking, an organization that partners with the city’s Alcoholic Beverage Regulation Administration (ABRA) to ensure that D.C.’s bars, clubs, and liquor stores do not sell alcohol to minors. Most weekends, coalition kids fan out across the city checking for illicit libations.
According to Maria Delaney, ABRA’s director, it wasn’t a coincidence that underage agents showed up at Cada Vez that Friday. She’d been tipped off that minors might go to the dance party by one of the establishment’s neighbors. “At that point, I was concerned about underage drinking,” Delaney says. Later that night, she learned the details of the Cada Vez sale from one of her investigators. The affair may well have ended as quietly as it started. Sure, the club would have been subject to a fine and the Alcoholic Beverage Control Board could have levied its mandatory two-day suspension.
But then Jim Graham heard about it.
The Ward 1 councilmember sent out an e-mail to community Listservs Sunday afternoon alerting residents to the violation. The subject of the e-mail was “Booze for 15-year-olds/Is Cada Vez The New Kili’s, Smarta/Broadway, Club U?”
“I fear, here we go again…,” Graham wrote. “They are now admitting 15-year-olds, and then serving them booze. Thanks to the ABC program on minors, they were caught. This time. But clearly they are primed for wide-open action, already.”
“This makes me double determined to get my reform legislation on kids in nightclubs before the council ASAP,” he wrote. “Here we go again” was Graham’s way of invoking the most recent disaster in clubland. On Jan. 20, 17-year-old Taleshia Ford was fatally shot at Smarta/Broadway, a club at 1919 Ninth St. NW. After the shooting, Graham introduced a bill that would prohibit minors not accompanied by their parents from entering nightclubs, restaurants, or taverns after 11 p.m. unless establishments provide entertainment and get special permission from ABRA.
In an interview, Graham, 61, said of Cada Vez, “It’s the same crap. I’ll be damned if I wait until somebody is dead on the pavement.” The same crap? Not quite. According to Delaney, Feb. 23 marked the club’s first violation for a sale to a minor. Although serious, no one had been injured or assaulted. And yet, in clicking “send,” the councilmember had catapulted Cada Vez to the ranks of three of the city’s most notorious and deadliest clubs. Smarta/Broadway made headlines after the Ford killing. Terrence Brown, 31, died after a fight in the lobby area of the Reeves Center outside Club U in February 2005. And four men were wounded in a shooting outside of Kili’s Kafe & Lounge & University Citi Caterer in November 2005.
Charles Zhou, general manager at Cada Vez, says he doesn’t want to “justify what we did…[but] one underage violation does not classify us with the Kili’s and the Smarta/Broadways. Many places have gotten busted in the last month for underage violations.…To classify us with Kili’s or Club U is not fair because we never had a violent incident.”
Andrea Bagwell, the attorney representing Cada Vez, called Graham’s e-mail “inflammatory.…Even before there’s an investigation, the councilmember has already broadcast the facts,” she says. “Why are we only highlighting Cada Vez? It seems like certain establishments get tagged as problem establishments, and others lay low. They’re not on the radar.”
Graham, however, makes no apologies for his attack on Cada Vez nor his attacks on clubs in general. “Cada Vez on Friday night, I don’t think, was a safe place for a 15-year-old to be,” he said at a March 1 meeting of club owners, alcohol officials, and community activists. “Does society believe this is a suitable environment for a 15-year-old to be in? I think the people I represent would say no.”
With those people in mind, Graham has emerged as a crusader against club misbehavior. Liquor issues strike a nerve for the recovering alcoholic, but he says his personal struggle with booze isn’t what drives him. “That doesn’t influence me. If that influenced me, I would have a different attitude about liquor licenses generally. This has to do with serious violence related to a liquor license. That bothers me. It has nothing to do with booze or my situation,” Graham says, adding about Club U, “I do have a problem when people are dragged bleeding and dying…into the lobby of a government building.”
So, whether the transgression is violent, like a stabbing or shooting, or merely regulatory, like an underage drinking bust, Graham is ready with sound bites deploring a lawless, dangerous nightclubbing culture. And he’s available to the media all weekend, any weekend, which means his spin is often the first side of the story in headlines and newscasts. “I find it really troubling that Councilmember Graham rushes to the cameras immediately following a problem or an incident at an establishment, before the facts are even known, and announces to the community: ‘I want this place shut down.’…I just find that over the top,” says Mark Lee, a local nightlife advocateï»¿. Tired of playing defense, bar and club owners have pooled their resources and hired a full-time lobbyist. Instead of simply sniping at Graham, they’re meeting with him—these days on a weekly basis. It’s part of a campaign to push back at a regulatory apparatus that has become increasingly adept at punishing club owners.
“Either you get pissed or you get fucked,” says Marc Barnes, owner of the megaclub Love. “We’re fighting.”
Where Adrian Fenty wields his BlackBerry, Graham governs by phone. If something goes awry at a club in his ward, ABRA’s Delaney will definitely hear about it. So she takes a preemptive approach. “As soon as there’s a stabbing or something, I call him or e-mail him so that he doesn’t call me first,” she says.
Of course, if Delaney is on vacation, whoever is pinch-hitting gets Graham’s calls. For a long time, that was Jeff Coudriet, ABRA’s former director of operations. “He would call me often, at virtually any time of day,” Coudriet says. “It could range from very important topics to not very important topics. I would say it was emblematic of his extremely energetic oversight.”
Graham admits his phone habit. “I’m not shy about calling people,” he says. “I’m not shy at all. My whole professional style, and I’m going back to the ’70s, has been hands on. I’m not afraid of getting involved in details….I’m as active on trash issues and bus schedules. This is not something I’ve reserved for alcohol.”
Perhaps, but his interest in alcohol issues has garnered Graham quite a reputation in the liquor industry.
From 2005 through 2006, he chaired the council’s Committee on Consumer and Regulatory Affairs, which oversees the city’s alcohol board and ABRA, which is responsible for the committee’s investigations. During his time as committee chairman, Graham became known for indignant orations uttered from the dais. His scrutiny of the ABC board was particularly intense.
Outgoing board chair Charles Burger says, “Aggressive oversight is critical to make this government work,” but, he says, there’s a line that parties should be careful not to cross. “I think we have to constantly guard against political influence that would impact our operations or that would impact the board’s policies or rulings….There’s a tendency to try to influence the board because people are passionate about this issue, and that’s true of everyone, including Council. We respect that, and we work with it the best we can.” Burger will leave his post in March or April.
Graham was tough because the board needed prodding, he says. “They were duds, initially.…They were overly appreciative of the industry point of view.” Graham points to violence at U Street clubs to demonstrate the board’s slow-footedness. “I think they were slow to act on Club U. They were slow to act on Kili’s.” He says he was “battling” with Club U over violence at the establishment for years before the board revoked its license in June 2005. To Graham’s enduring chagrin, the ABC Board plowed through 80 hours of hearings before taking final action on the establishment.
Things are better now, Graham says. “We have energized the ABC Board and ABRA on violent crimes.…Today the board is much more aggressive. Prudent, but aggressive.”
If Graham appears attached to his liquor job, he is. Take a look at how the council shuffled oversight responsibilities for this legislative term. Traditionally, suzerainty over ABRA and ABC has rested in the council’s Committee on Consumer and Regulatory Affairs. In January, however, Graham moved to the public works committee. ABC oversight moved right along with him.
“It was something I requested, and the chairman was aware of my record, my interests, so he granted my request,” Graham says. “Being a Ward 1 councilmember, I have about 261 alcohol licenses in my ward. That’s the second largest group of licenses in the city. Only Ward 2 has more….It’s a relevant thing for my constituents.”
Graham’s power play comes in the midst of a bad run for the nightlife industry. Last year, clubs fought and lost a pitched battle against the mandatory smoking ban. Also in 2006, the ABC board stiffened penalties for sales to minors, making the fine for a first-time offense $1,000 with a mandatory two-day suspension to be served on Thursdays and Fridays, a punishment larger club owners say is crippling in terms of financial losses.
“It’s unreal, unreal,” laments Garry Stack, owner of the Irish Channel Restaurant and Pub on H Street NW. “Regulations just keep coming and coming. Every year there’s something new.”
D.C. hasn’t always been rife with regulations and booze inspectors. When former Councilmember Sharon Ambrose and her staff began revamping the liquor laws in 1999, the alcohol administration was simply strangled by “bureaucratic sloth and incompetence,” says Coudriet, who worked on the rewrite of the legislation. “It was part of the horror of DCRA,” he says.
At the time, the alcohol administration operated under DCRA’s wide and leaky umbrella. The city was broke, and the alcohol agency was pitifully understaffed, says Coudriet. “There were a lot of cuts at DCRA.” Few alcohol investigations materialized; there were only about four or five investigators working for the agency in 1999, says Coudriet. “I would turn investigations in and nothing would happen,” he remembers.
Small wonder: ABRA investigators in the old days rarely hit the streets at night.
Laurie Collins, president of the Mount Pleasant Neighborhood Alliance, served on the ABC Board from 2000 to 2003. She says that when she moved to Mount Pleasant in the late ’80s, the neighborhood was a playground for the booze industry.
“There was no enforcement by the alcohol agency, which was under DCRA at the time.…Licenses were supposed to be renewed every two years, but you didn’t see a placard for like five.…The bars stayed open all night. It was loud; it was noisy.”
“We would write letters to the ABC Board and the businesses complaining and they would send an investigator at like 10 in the morning to check things out,” she says. “Of course, you won’t find anything at 10 in the morning.”
Collins doesn’t remember exactly how many investigators worked on ABC issues during the agency’s nadir—maybe two, she says, “but it felt like there weren’t any.…There was basically no support from the city, and businesses just did what they wanted to do.”
Faced with such dysfunction, Ambrose and her staff radically reworked the entire structure of alcohol regulation and enforcement. “They scrapped the whole thing,” says Andrew Kline, attorney for the Restaurant Association Metropolitan Washington. Kline began working on liquor issues in 1981.
Under the new law, which went into effect in 2001, ABRA spun out from DCRA, and the board launched a search for a new director. It selected Delaney, whose résumé included seven years as the director of liquor control for the state of Connecticut, a stint at the U.S. Attorney’s office seizing drug dealers’ assets, and a job on the organized crime and narcotics unit in Massachusetts.
Delaney came to ABRA with a mission to build a stronger regulatory body. It was a big job. When she arrived, Delaney says, she discovered an agency in disarray. Apparently, the alcohol administration had been in the habit of sending its files to Texas, “to scan them, to do things with them.…A lot of those records never came back to ABRA,” she says.
Delaney made it one of her first priorities to put the broken files back together. “We have begun to reconcile files, meaning that the hours of operation were missing, certificates of occupancy were missing. So much information was missing. So before the actual renewal of any application now, we make sure that everything is updated.”
Delaney trained her attention on ABRA investigations. She redeployed investigators on nights and beefed up training. Perhaps most important, Delaney says, she worked to strengthen the relationship between the alcohol administration and the D.C. police department.
Most ABRA investigations hinge on a police report known as a 251. To follow up on a potential ABC violation, which can be anything from noise complaints to knifings, ABRA counts on getting 251s from the police department. At best, they get calls from the scene as well.
“When I first got here, we were getting one a week, two a week,” Delaney says of the police reports. “At least, now, we’re getting most of them. I wouldn’t say all of them.” One of the problems with the Smarta/Broadway case, she says, is that the police department hadn’t sent over all of the 251s. “Hindsight is 20/20. If we had gotten some of the reports of when the incidents occurred, the board would have looked at them and taken the appropriate action.”
With Delaney at the helm, ABRA’s budget has increased to $4 million from the $800,000 it had before she arrived in 2002. Staffing has risen from 29 to 43, and 14 of the 17 slots for investigators have been filled.
And Delaney stretches those resources to new programs, like the alliance with the underage coalition kids. On the night of Cada Vez’s bust, for example, the kids and their supervisors visited 14 establishments and netted four sales to minors, according to Delaney.
All of this enforcement means the alcohol board’s dockets are chock-full of complaints to hear, agreements to broker, and violations to punish. It’s a heavy caseload for the mayor-appointed board, and a big headache for licensees, who have become familiar with the board’s digs at 941 North Capitol St. NE. There, on the seventh floor, a parade of the plaintive or penitent plead their cases. Some hearings seem almost whimsical, like the time a pub provided comedy acts without a license and got slapped with a suspension and fine.
At times, the hearing room serves as a clearing house for all that is scatological and unsavory about the city. Seated on a platform, the board members hear complaints about vomit bubbling up in salon sinks because of the bar upstairs, a bouncer allegedly peeing on a patron, security staff using miniature flashlights to pistol-whip belligerent customers, and two sister-strippers duking it out at a club.
More often, however, the hearings are routine. Board members consider license renewals, review designs for roof decks, and iron out the details of voluntary agreements. These proceedings can go on for months, even years, before the board weighs in with a decision. At Cada Vez, it took more than two years for the board to hand down a decision on the establishment’s application for extended hours (it was rejected) and to lift a ban on rock and hip hop at the club, which was accepted.
“It seems to me that the agency doesn’t understand the ramifications of letting these decisions linger. Oftentimes, these are small businesses.…It’s very difficult,” Cada Vez’s attorney Bagwell says.
The businesses aren’t the only ones complaining. “The board’s process is so cumbersome it takes them a year to work through the system,” says Rob Halligan, president of the Dupont Circle Citizens Association. “Administratively, they’re unbelievable.…If ABC was functioning, I wouldn’t be able to accuse them of the one free stabbing rule,” he says of the ABC Board’s sometimes delayed punishment for club violence.
For six years, Frederic Harwood, a former consultant for the pharmaceutical industry and one-time part-owner of the U Street nightclub 2K9 served as executive director of the D.C. Licensed Beverage Association, which represented the booze business to the council and the alcohol board. It was a loosely affiliated group, composed mostly of small business owners, Harwood says. He never received a salary and dues “were intermittently paid.”
About eight months ago, club kingpin Barnes and some other owners decided they wanted to inject new energy into the group. Barnes watched the nightclub Pearl get shut down after a spate of assaults and got worried. “I felt it was a little bit of a free for all, the wild, wild West,” he says. It was as though if one club got pummeled, they all took a hit. “We’re letting a few bad apples kill the reputation of Washington, D.C.,” he lamented.
To hear Barnes tell it, the problem with alcohol regulation in D.C. is that there isn’t enough of it, or at least, there isn’t the right kind. “I think there’s a lot of misregulation,” he says. For example, when minors get drinks at bars, Barnes wants the kids to be prosecuted, not the businesses that sell to them. Fining licensees for underage sales, he says, is like closing down a bank because it’s been robbed.
Barnes called in his booze brain trust: Michael Romeo of Fur, Masoud Aboughaddareh of Lima, Abdul Khanu of H2O, and Andre de Moya of Eyebar. “I tried to explain to them, if we don’t stand up for ourselves, nobody else will.” Instead of just linking arms with the city’s restaurant association, he encouraged them to join the beverage association and pushed the group to make changes.
In January 2007, D.C. LBA tweaked its name and began doing business as the D.C. Nightlife Association. Newly rechristened, the association hired the soft-spoken Skip Coburn, formerly an investigative assistant for Ambrose, to serve as director and started paying him a salary culled from a sliding scale of dues.
“I think that the businesses have decided that they want to move out of what maybe has traditionally been a totally defensive position,” Coburn says. “They spend so much time defending themselves at a hearing or refuting some fallacious charge that they weren’t even responsible for that they don’t spend any time on highlighting…the lengths to which they are trying to be law-abiding citizens.”
Coburn has encouraged D.C. Nightlife to forge new relationships with councilmembers, saying, “I think it’s important that you guys not stand alone like a whiny bunch of business owners.”
To that end, Barnes in January forked over $500 to Mark Long’s campaign for the Ward 7 council seat. In 2006, Khanu contributed $1,500 to Vincent Gray’s campaign for council chairman, $500 for A. Scott Bolden’s At-Large run, and $1,000 to Mayor Adrian Fenty. Joe Englert, who owns 12 bars across the city, also gave $1,000 to Fenty.
Furthermore, Coburn wants the association to initiate partnerships with other organizations that have similar goals, including the city’s tourism groups and business institutions. As a result, the group was a donor to the Chamber of Commerce Annual Awards Dinner and “made a significant contribution” of alcohol, Coburn says. He says the association was also a contributor to the recent DC Independent Film Festival at the University of the District of Columbia.
Kline, who represents the restaurant association, says, “I don’t know what their goals are or how they’re different from ours. We fight the battle for the right to eat, drink, and be merry. We certainly welcome anyone who wants to join with us.”
The Nightlife Association meets every month. In February, approximately 20 establishment owners met at MCCXXIII on Connecticut Avenue to air their grievances and discuss lobbying strategies. The crowd at the meeting was a who’s who of the D.C. bar and club scene. Richard Eidman of Fly Lounge, Jean Homza of the 9:30 Club, Englert, and Barnes all piled onto the club’s benches.
“I’m putting together a statistical summary of all the things that nightlife contributes to the city,” Coburn announced and asked association members to submit information about their property taxes and in-kind contributions to the city. It’s time the public sees licensees as pillars of the community not punching bags, he said. “There’s one little chink in your armor and they hang you out to dry like you weren’t even trying.”
When it comes to the injustices of the ABC Board, it doesn’t take much to get this bunch going. “You guys have all gone down to the ABC Board,” said Englert. “Have you ever been treated well [there]?…Is anyone here in business to sell to minors?” he asked. “They can’t solve a murder, they can’t fix a school, but, suddenly, they go crazy on a sale to a minor.”
The association, however, has agenda items more pressing than simply re-airing old gripes about the ABC Board. Graham doesn’t appear to be giving up on his bill to limit underage club patronage, although he is reviewing it with stakeholders. “I might introduce a new bill that would reflect some of the things we’ve been considering,” he says. Either way, he hopes to hold a hearing on the legislation in the next 30 days.
Few pieces of legislation have threatened the clubs’ bottom line as directly as the Graham vehicle, at least as it was originally presented. Key members of the association draw good money from all those X-marked college kids who are allowed into their clubs without alcohol privileges.
And then there’s the music, says Black Cat owner Dante Ferrando: “Music should be accessible to people of all ages. The reality of the live music business is that alcohol, to some degree, subsidizes the music.”
Harwood says “underage is not the problem. The problem is security in a small percentage of clubs that are not operating properly. And the fact that someone is under 18, or even under 17, is immaterial to the problems that are happening in any of the establishments.”
In terms of security, “we’ve repeatedly asked—for more than three years—for city council’s cooperation to allow us to hire off-duty policemen at our expense to work in our venues to provide safety for our patrons. For three years, we have been denied,” Harwood says. “It is absurd that a fast food restaurant like a McDonald’s or a department store downtown is allowed to hire off-duty policemen, but we are denied that same privilege.”
The group isn’t giving up, though. It’s doing just what associations do: meeting with the players. At a March 1 get-together with Graham, the members heard some more of the councilmember’s classic rhetoric on clubbing: “I am willing to be here today to represent the people who were outraged that there was someone that young shot in a nightclub,” Graham said of Ford’s death at Smarta/Broadway. “Legislatures make all kinds of decisions about age. How old do you have to be to drink? How old do you have to be to drive? How old do you have to be to have sex? These are decisions society makes.”
Club owners remained unconvinced, echoing concerns they had voiced to Graham before. Homza worried the bill would have a chilling effect on establishments looking to locate in the District. “There will never be another small entrepreneur that comes in and says I want to do an all-ages venue.”
Harwood complained, “We’re being punished for the sins of outliers.”
Then the group bent their heads over the proposed bill to consider the placement of a comma and agreed to meet the following week.