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A criminal case lays bare a vendor free-for-all on District streets.

For many immigrants newly arrived in the District, serving up sloppy chili dogs to D.C. fat cats, office workers, and tourists has been a reliable route to the American Dream. It’s an avenue that has been blocked, however, since a moratorium on new vending licenses was passed by the D.C. City Council in March 1998.

The moratorium remains in place because a proposed reform of vending laws has spent three years tangled in bureaucracy at the D.C. Department of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs (DCRA). For the District’s 874 vendors, the lack of clear and enforceable regulations about cart placement has resulted in nightmares that include street mayhem and turf wars.

The story of Egyptian immigrant Elsayeda Abdelgewad is a good illustration. Abdelgewad owned her own cart and worked as a substitute vendor in the District, plying her trade on the fringes of the city, working remote spots in mostly residential neighborhoods, and waiting for a break.

Then she met Ghulam Mangal. Mangal was Abdelgewad’s ticket out of the vending minor leagues. He was a veteran D.C. “puller” from Afghanistan who owned several vending carts and a vehicle to haul carts from a garage to their appointed street corner and back each night. Mangal offered Abdelgewad a coveted spot near the Dupont Circle Metro, on the corner of 20th and Q Streets. In addition to pulling Abdelgewad’s cart there each day, Mangal also stocked it for her. He charged her $250 a week in the summer months and $200 in the winter.

The arrangement lasted from May 1998 to March 2000, when Abdelgewad decided to terminate her agreement with Mangal. She stopped paying him and hired another puller to take his place. She didn’t, however, find a new spot. Instead, she clung to the corner that Mangal had found for her.

As a longtime puller, Mangal was outraged. He was so irate, in fact, that he allegedly began a campaign of harassment and intimidation against Abdelgewad that finally landed him in jail on May 5, 2000. Released on bail with a strict warning to stay away from his erstwhile client, Mangal continued to harass Abdelgewad through the summer. By Sept. 6, the court had revoked Mangal’s bail and confined him to a cell until his February trial.

In the trial’s opening arguments, Assistant U.S. Attorney Michael Fitzpatrick characterized Mangal as “an operator who knew how to work the system.” According to the prosecution, Mangal would use his cunning to dupe rookie vendors into bogus deals by which they paid him rent for prime vending spots around the city. The prosecution pointed out that charging rent for public sidewalk spaces amounts to extortion.

Defense attorney Mary Manning Petras portrayed Mangal as a hard-working, reliable man who started off as a vendor and worked his way up to a quasi-managerial position. Far from extorting money, the defense argued, Mangal was simply charging vendors, such as Abdelgewad, for the services that he provided. Without people like Mangal, Petras argued, rookie vendors would fail on the streets, and it was a coup of sorts by ungrateful upstarts that landed Mangal in front of the jury.

After deliberating for several days, the jury found Mangal guilty of 10 felony counts, including extortion, fraud, assault with intent to extort, and obstruction of justice. He was cleared on four other counts, including one count of obstruction of justice and three counts of contempt of court. He will be sentenced on May 11, 2001.

Under current D.C. vending law, Mangal had no right to “rent” a bit of sidewalk to Abdelgewad. In fact, regulations that govern the location of carts within designated vending zones in the city are essentially null and void.

“The city has said that, basically, it’s a free-for-all,” says Joseph Sternlieb of the Downtown Business Improvement District. “They regulate it, but they don’t enforce the regulations. The vendors would make more money if [the cart system] were better regulated. The current system doesn’t protect anyone’s interests. Not the city’s. Not the vendors’. Not the property owners’.”

It’s not that there are no regulations for D.C. vendors. Anyone who has ever considered buying pornography, power tools, or poodles from street vendors in the District can read Title 24, Chapter 5 of the D.C. Municipal Regulations. This regulatory smorgasbord contains manifold requirements for vendors that cover topics such as no-vending zones, cart design, and height limitations for displaying balloons.

Major discrepancies exist, however, between the regulations on the books and their enforcement on the streets. It’s a fact that’s been noticed since 1998, when the international law firm Holland & Knight was commissioned by the financial control board to study District business regulations. In the section of the study devoted to street vending, Holland & Knight recommended that the District “[p]ractice fair and consistent enforcement of existing regulations.”

Had it been implemented, one such regulation—Sections 515.26 to 515.29—is precisely the kind that might have prevented clashes such as the one between Mangal and Abdelgewad. As amended in 1998 by the Omnibus Regulatory Reform Act, it would require the D.C. Metropolitan Police Department (MPD) to assign each licensed vendor to a specific site approved by the DCRA for a two-year period based on a random lottery drawing.

The D.C. Code was further amended by that same act to allow for unspecified alternative methods of assigning space to vendors. But neither the lottery nor another such method has been adopted. Instead, a first-come, first-served system has evolved, placing every legal vending spot in the city up for grabs. Thus, in theory, a vendor who gets to a spot first controls that turf for the day.

In response to this regulatory vacuum, vendors themselves have instituted their own ad hoc system for stability. Because most retail enterprises rely on the permanence of their location to succeed, a code of etiquette has evolved among vendors: Don’t take somebody else’s spot. (This explains, in part, why Mangal was so irate about Abdelgewad’s defection; she was, in effect, trampling the existing rules of vendor etiquette.)

District authorities are apt to refer to this system for claiming vending spots as the current law of the land, but the term “first-come, first-served” in D.C. vending law is used in a section on the issuance of vending licenses, not in the regulation of designated vending locations.

Sgt. Zachary Scott of the MPD’s Special Operations Division serves as the liaison between the MPD and the DCRA on all vending issues. If patrol officers have a question about the regulations, they go to Scott, who then consults DCRA vending coordinator Ted Green.

Asked why the site-lottery system stipulated in the regulations was never enacted by the MPD, Scott seemed unaware of the regulation and then suggested erroneously that the site-lottery stipulation applied only to roadside vendors. He referred all further questions to his counterpart at the DCRA.

DCRA officials appear to be equally in the dark. In an initial conference-call interview, former DCRA vending coordinator Maurice Evans could offer no explanation for the delays in implementing a system to assign space, and DCRA public-information officer Gina Douglas insisted, “We’re working on it.”

In response to more specific questions faxed to DCRA concerning the delays and any measures being taken in the interim, Douglas responded, “We’re not quite sure why the previous two directors, prior to [acting DCRA director] Carlynn Fuller, did not move on setting up the lottery system.” Douglas adds: “Fuller is now moving forward with putting out a request for a proposal for a study of the system.”

Mohammad Akbar would make a great role model for new District vendors, if there were any at the moment. He came to the United States from his native Afghanistan more than a decade ago, speaking broken English and owning next to nothing. He started out selling food in the District as a vendor. Each day, he would hit the streets early and return home late. Over time, he saved up money, and 12 years ago, he opened his own business—District Food Vending Inc.

On a recent Wednesday evening, Akbar’s vending depot—an industrial warehouse located on an alley off L Street between 9th and 10th Streets NW—is abuzz with vendors fresh off the streets, wrapping up their day. As an Ethiopian couple unhitches their food stand from the back of a pickup truck, other vendors vigorously scrub down their gear at a row of industrial sinks lining one side of the garage. In an adjoining room, which looks like a stripped-down Price Club, a vendor pushes a shopping cart through mountains of soda cans and candy bars, occasionally grabbing a package of treats to restock her stand.

Akbar sits in a chair, conducting business from his back office. It’s a cluttered room, with stacks of Hall’s cough drops, piles of Hot Tamales, and packs of sunflower seeds competing for space with a menagerie of other vending-cart fare. A plastic Pepsi clock hangs on one wall alongside a Muslim calendar proclaiming “The Importance of Finality of Prophethood.”

When asked about the moratorium on new vending licenses, Akbar shakes his head. “This is a good thing for people to do when they’re new to this country,” he says. “You don’t have to speak much English. You can work your own hours. And people here, they respect each other. They should be allowed to vend.”

Until the regulatory mess is cleaned up, however, those who want to get into the vending trade in the District are frozen out.

Mara Verheyden-Hilliard from the Partnership for Civil Justice points out that it is not just the newcomers who are hurt by the present moratorium. “What the moratorium does, in effect,” she explains, “is cause a slow death for vendors. It strangles them. It’s such an oppressive restriction on their trade rights and their ability to engage in business.”

One such case, Verheyden-Hilliard continues, is that of vendors who own their carts. “If they want to sell that and move on or do something else, or if they have hardship, they can’t sell that cart because there’s no one to buy it,” she says. “No one can take their license. They’re stuck. It’s a great hardship.” CP