The D.C. government regards its Web site as the weapon of last resort against tax delinquents. First, it sends warning letters. Then, it seizes bank accounts, revokes all business licenses, and auctions off property. Sometimes it pursues criminal charges. Only when all other avenues have been exhausted does the D.C. Office of Tax and Revenue (OTR) post the name of the noncompliant taxpayer or business on the Internet.
“If you are a citizen, if you know where to find this person, let us know,” says Marc Maiorca, the agency’s chief collections officer. But the effort doesn’t exactly attest to the site’s enforcement capability. Despite the publicity, the top position on the list hasn’t changed since 1998. Jac-Thom Enterprises, otherwise known as Sarge’s Liquor Post, still owes more than $4 millionor about $3 million more than the debtor currently holding down second place.
The ongoing effort to cure the store’s tax debt doesn’t seem promising. Collection agents arriving at Sarge’s Liquor Post at 2746 14th St. NW will find no Sarge, no liquor, and no post. Nor will they find 2746 14th St., which was located on what is now a barren lot, slated to become the site of 56 condominiums.
For nearly 30 years, the small storefront played a central role in the life of Columbia Heights residentsnot just as a source of alcohol, but also as a locus of mayhem. In the early ’70s, law-enforcement officials said that Warren Cooper Sr.whom one former employee identifies as “Sarge”was one of the Washington area’s top 10 drug dealers; in 1972 he was sentenced to 15 years for selling heroin. Twelve years later, a car crashed into the front entrance of Sarge’s; the driver was allegedly found with a machete. And one morning in 1992, a pair of armed men fled from the store as Sarge reportedly chased them into the street, firing a 12-gauge shotgun at the two would-be stick-up artists. He didn’t miss.
The drug trade was active just outside the Liquor Post, but Jeremiah Knight, who says he worked at the store in the ’80s, says the dealers never brought it inside. “They gave us respect,” he says. According to Knight, the store did good business. He remembers days when the register rang up over $10,000 in sales.
The government, though, never received its rightful share. Tax officials, citing privacy rules, decline to disclose more than the basics of debtors and their debts. But they say that the Liquor Post’s bill represents a series of liens going back to at least 1992 and that the bulk of the sum is from outstanding sales and use taxes, payroll taxes, and corporate franchise taxes. The posted total includes a 25 percent penalty and 18 percent annual interest on the original debt. It doesn’t, however, include the interest that has continued to accrue since 1998, when the store made the debtor list.
How does a small business dig a multi-million-dollar hole before District collectors do something about it? OTR officials say they coordinate with other agencies and use multiple databases and hi-tech tracking software to identify people who have underreported their incomes. Still, it may be years before a problem is detected.
In December 1998, two months after the latest lien was filed against the Liquor Post, the District finally closed it down. The OTR auctioned off the store’s equipment, its stock of liquor, and its liquor license. This netted District coffers about $14,000, leaving the city short $4,194,166.66. The agency continues to hold three company officers responsible for the debt, but that isn’t likely to remedy the situation. One filed for bankruptcy protection in 2002, and it appears that one of them is dead.
The two living officers could not be reached for comment, nor could Sarge, whom OTR doesn’t identify as an officer of the company on its Web site. Sarge’s estranged son, Warren Cooper Jr., says he doesn’t know where Sarge is these days, but that his father’s former business was one of the reasons they didn’t see eye to eye. “It opened up right after the ’68 riots, one of the first black-owned businesses in the area,” says Cooper Jr. “But there’s another side of the story, which is totally shady and illegal.” The Liquor Post’s debt doesn’t surprise him; Cooper says his father owes him “some of my child support from when I was a kid.” CP