City Desk

51st State Nixes 51st Statehood Fundraiser

If you were planning to head out to the 51st State tonight to support statehood activist Karen Szulgit's efforts to pay her protest-incurred tax bill, don't bother—party's been canceled.

According to a release from Szulgit, a manager at the bar said: "51st State Tavern has always been happy to host fundraisers for worthy causes...but we have also always felt that such events should benefit a group, not a single person." (The bar didn't immediately return a call for comment.)

A little back story: Back in 2003, a bunch of statehood rabble-rousers called, um, D.C. RABBLE, launched a "tax obstruction campaign." One tactic embraced by some activists, including Szulgit, was to pay their tax bills with "big checks" that included messages including "Emancipate DC Tax Slaves Now!"; "FREE DC!"; "Full Rights for DC!"; and "No Taxation Without Representation!" (The checks had all the necessary information for actual payment and we printed with the requisite magnetic ink and all that.)

The feds, however, wouldn't take Szulgit's checks for her 2004, 2005, and 2006 returns, which she enclosed with a letter informing the authorities that her tax return was "paid under protest." In February, Szulgit got notice from the IRS that she owed more than $1,000—the $850 she originally owed plus interest and penalties. An IRS agent, she says, told her the fines were due to the fact that the "check was not done correct." Szulgit paid the $850 in February.

The remaining $526.24, however, she was hoping to make up through this fundraiser. Szulgit says she learned about the cancellation in an e-mail from 51st State manager Bjarne Hecht over the weekend.

Says Szulgit, "I'm very disappointed that Mr. Hecht viewed my event as benefiting only me. I always felt that my actions in pursuit of self-determination for D.C. were on behalf of all Washingtonians who value equality, not just me."

UPDATE, 4/24, 3 P.M.: Finally got in touch with Hecht, who essentially confirms Szulgit's recounting of the events. "We were led to believe that this was a fundraiser for the organization she represents," he says. D.C. voting rights, he says, is "a worthy cause," but when it comes to a benefit for a single person, "That we can't do."

The bar's policy, Hecht says, is that if a private event can guarantee more than 40 people or if it's a legit fundraiser, the bar will offer a private room. Otherwise, he says, you have to pay for a private room.

Hecht says his bar's hosted plenty of fundraisers over the years and will continue to: "We've had leukemia, tsunami—you name it."

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  • Reid

    I think it's a little tacky to host a benefit for yourself. It's kind of like planning your own surprise party. It should have been hosted by an organization. That would make it not seem so self-serving.

  • Claudia

    I think the comment posted by Reid is harsh and unnecessary, if you know Karen, one would not be so quick to judge such a loyal and humble individual as her. Karen breaths and eats DC's cry for statehood, and conveys it with passion and dignified conviction, giving up her personal time, volunteer hours and money! Indeed she is an exemplary role-model for grass roots activism.

  • Paul Strauss, US Senator (DC-Shadow)

    I am extremely disappointed in the conduct of this restaurant. Karen Szulgit was acting as part of a coordinated movement when she incurred these debts, and she did so on behalf of all Washingtonians. Would this restaurant have canceled an event for Rosa Parks, simply because the penalties imposed by the unjust laws of her time were assessed against her in an individual capacity, instead of as a member of a group? It is wrong for a business establishment to adopt a name attached to the lofty goal of our Statehood, and then reject the very values that those who struggle to achieve this goal represent. From my perspective, Ms. Szulgit will still get the check I would have written in person at this event, had it gone forward. All that has changed for me is that the dinner tab that would have gone to this restaurant now goes to another more deserving establishment.

  • Reid

    I was merely saying it seems a little tacky to be the organizer of your own benefit. I think an organization such as DC Vote should have hosted it. But, I don't agree with the bar's position that the ultimate beneciary ought to be an organization rather than an individual. I just think as a general matter there ought to be a bona fide organization between donors and beneficiaries.

  • creative loafers

    The Honorable Mr Strauss,

    Are you sure it's not a Puerto Rican bar?

  • JT

    I am thoroughly disappointed in the conduct of this restaurant. Ms Szulgit incurred this debt fighting for the inalienable rights of all Washingtonians and our businesses. I agree with the Statehood Senator, that it is wrong for a business establishment with a name attached to the lofty goal of our Statehood and then reject the efforts of those who struggle to achieve our goal. Ms. Szulgit will still get a check from me and the restaurant will no longer get my taxation without representation dollar. The End

  • Bjarne Hecht

    In view of some of the harsher comments about 51st State Tavern, I would like to clarify what went wrong with Ms. Szulgit's fundraiser. When she contacted me about this event, she did so using her organizations name, so I -perhaps wrongly- assumed that this event was to benefit said organization and the cause of DC statehood. When she wasn't certain as to how many people she could gather for this fundraiser I suggested in an email dated April 14th, to put up signs directing her guests as well as the regular clients of 51st State Tavern to the DC Statehood Fundraiser. This was to help her event becoming successful (and raise more money). The following day, April 15th, she responded that this sounded nice. She did NOT correct my mistake or clarify what the fundraiser was for. In fact we were never told the true cause of this event until we received a copy of Ms. Szulgit's invitation/media release on April 18th. At this point, who would NOT feel deceived??? I felt that since our regular clientele would be part of this event, I could not in good conscience let it go forward and I cancelled the event on April 19th. At no point in time have I put judgement on Ms. Szulgit's grassroots activism or any DC Statehood organization. I simply had to follow company policy. As for this policy, we only accept fundraisers where money collected go through established organizations, not single persons. This is to protect our guests, in this day and age with fraud and scams, I don't think anybody can blame us for such a policy. As for the name of our establishment, it is only part of who we are. We do not view ourselves as a "political bar", however, in a small way I do think we help the cause. I see people outside on a daily basis, taking pictures of our sign - and yes indeed, some of them are Puerto Ricans who are valued just as much as District residents, many are tourists from around the country and in this way I do think we are "spreading the word". I hope this will help to clarify some of the misconceptions as well as our position in this matter - and wish all the best for "the cause"!
    Sincerely, Bjarne Hect, manager - 51st State Tavern