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Kili’s Kafe and Lounge used to kick off each work week with a champagne-sponsored evening of star-studded entertainment. “Moët Mondays for the Sophisticated, Grown & Sexy,” according to the club’s Web site, showcased the syncopated beats of popular local go-go group Backyard Band and its famous frontman, Ralph Anwan “Big G” Glover. You might know him by his gangsta persona, Slim Charles, from the HBO drama The Wire.
With that kind of star power, you’d think the weekly party might be bringin’ in big bucks for the club—if, that is, Kili’s could sell tickets. Or bottles of bubbly. Or anything at all. But as a sign outside the 8th Street NW nightspot now points out: “NO RETAIL SALES CAN BE TRANSACTED.” And without sales, what’s the point of business?
On April 11, Kili’s Monday night offered nothing for the grown and sexy except dark windows, a locked front door, and a vague written explanation from management. “Due to circumstances beyond our control Kili’s Kafe will not be open tonight,” reads a second note posted near the entrance.
Actually, those circumstances are well within Kili’s control. They’re called taxes.
The tax man this year came a bit early for Kili’s CEO Victoria Kibunja. And he came in the form of a tax-lien notice issued on Feb. 9 by the D.C. Office of Tax and Revenue (OTR). According to the lien, Kibunja’s company, K Lounge LLC, owed the District $143,775.10 in unpaid sales and withholding taxes plus penalties and interest dating back to the club’s January 2004 opening.
Then, one month later, Kili’s got a friendly visit from the OTR’s collection division, which slapped its own sign onto the two-level, 16,000-square-foot nightclub. That posting, dated March 8, indicates in bold red lettering that K Lounge’s “CERTIFICATE OF REGISTRATION…HAS BEEN SUSPENDED.”
Of all the various permits, licenses, and other red-tape matters that are required of goods- and services-selling businesses in the District, the tax certificate is “strongly influential,” says Douglas Schauss, the OTR’s acting spokesperson. “Without the sales-tax certificate, they can’t sell any food, they can’t sell any booze, they can’t sell any services where they might charge taxes, they can’t sell anything.” And, Schauss adds, “it’s a mechanism that can influence other licenses.”
The very next day, in fact, Kili’s managers were summoned to appear before the District’s Alcoholic Beverage Control (ABC) Board, which promptly yanked the nightclub’s liquor license. It will remain in “safekeeping,” to use the bureaucratic term, until Kibunja & Co. pay off their outstanding debt.
Kibunja admits the club got behind on its taxes after becoming entangled in a bitter court fight with its landlord—a case that is ongoing. But she disputes the OTR’s numbers. She says Kili’s actually owes less than $100,000. But it’s the timing of the OTR’s audit that Kibunja finds most disagreeable. “We have not been given a fair chance to even establish our business,” she says. Kibunja suggests that the city’s action was “politically staged.”
Kili’s is the second Northwest go-go hub that city regulators have shut down since February. The first, Club U, remains subject to an indefinite liquor-license suspension. Both actions have come at the urging of Ward 1 Councilmember Jim Graham, whose attacks on these venues lately have earned him a reputation as the top playa hata of D.C.’s native musical genre.
Go-go enthusiasts have taken to calling the councilmember “GRAMZILLA/THE BLACK BUSINESS KILLA.” Fliers for last week’s “Catch The Killers & Save The Go-Go Rally” at Club U depicted the politician as a giant horned and pitchfork-equipped monster attacking that club, Kili’s, and other black-owned businesses along the U Street corridor.
Contrary to his cartoon homage, though, Graham insists that his opposition isn’t about the gentrification debate that animates U Street politics. Or music, for that matter. “I repeat,” says Graham, “this is not about go-go music, OK? Can I say that 15 times? This is not about go-go music. Not about go-go music. Not about go-go music….”
Still, Graham admits that he’s been keeping a close eye on Kili’s since last spring, when the politico “got wind of the fact” that this particular go-go club was being managed by the same family that used to run the former Adams Morgan spot Kilimanjaro. From its 1982 debut until foreclosure in 2001, Kilimanjaro was owned by Victoria’s parents, Kenyan native Victor Kibunja and his wife, Shirley Kibunja. Located at the corner of California Street and Florida Avenue NW, the restaurant and nightspot was known for its African and Caribbean cuisine and diverse array of musicians, including such international notables as Ghana’s Pat Thomas and Zaire’s Pepe Kalle.
But in the mid-’90s, the Kibunjas’ nightspot became a point of contention in the neighborhood. According to a 1995 Washington Post article, the tension coincided with changing demographics in Adams Morgan, as well as Kilimanjaro’s bookings of go-go bands. One revoked-but-later-reinstated liquor license, three separate bankruptcy filings, two foreclosure sales, and a trip to the D.C. Court of Appeals later, Kilimanjaro was finally forced out.
Graham recalls, “Several years I spent in the struggle to save that building and to wrench it away from Victor Kibunja.”
“We will find other ways to make money here if we have to,” Kibunja told the Post. “But it won’t be with a nightclub.”
And yet it was: Kili’s Kafe and Lounge was supposed to be “the successor to Kilimanjaro,” according to the club’s Web site, and the Kibunjas “have turned the torch over to their four daughters”—Victoria, Alecia, Gemma, and Michelle Kibunja—“to continue the legacy of long-term vision, strength, and opportunity to bring Kilimanjaro once again to the high standards it always had.”
And sure enough, the younger Kibunjas have done a pretty good job of following in their parents’ footsteps. The elder Kibunjas, after all, had a fair share of tax trouble themselves. According to the D.C. Recorder of Deeds, the Kibunjas were issued 11 separate delinquent-tax notices between 1985 and 1994, totaling $784,323.78 in owed taxes and penalties. And in 1995 the Internal Revenue Service slapped Victor Kibunja with a federal tax lien for another $635,950.
Kilimanjaro’s past liabilities have nothing to do with Kili’s, Victoria Kibunja asserts. That debt was settled upon foreclosure, she claims. Besides, Kili’s is her business. Her father is mentioned on the Web site only as a contact for “Special Events Development.”
“I’m semiretired,” Victor Kibunja told the ABC Board on March 9, adding that he had “no interest in K Lounge”—though he acknowledged giving his daughters a promissory note for $75,000 to help open the nightclub. His attorney, Marlene Johnson, testified that she had advised the father “not to be part of the LLC,” given his past history.
With Pops off the books, daughter Victoria had little trouble getting Kili’s fully liquor-licensed and ready to go, after signing a so-called Clean Hands Certificate in October 2003, which stated that her company “does not owe more than one hundred ($100) in outstanding debt to the District of Columbia.”
That’d be a tough statement for the Kili’s clan to sign these days. But the sisters are anxious to get back in the city’s good graces. Says Victoria, “We’re looking for loans from personal friends to help us get back open.”—Chris Shott
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