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When health inspectors visited Sam Wang Produce near Gallaudet University on Dec. 21, they found a host of sanitation problems. The refrigerator floors were covered with pools of water and bits of food, and thermometers that should have been on the freezer and refrigerator were either missing or broken.
Worst of all, the building located at 300 Morse Street NE had rats. The rodents left behind droppings on the floor and in crates, and egg shell cartons bore teeth marks. Noticing the infestation, Department of Health employee Jacqueline Coleman ordered Sam Wang to close immediately. But the embattled grocery store still had one friend: a member of the D.C. Council.
Just 22 minutes after inspectors decided to close Sam Wang, according to an inspection report first reported by Titan of Trinidad, an unnamed male D.C. councilmember showed up and asked Coleman who her boss was. When a Department of Health program manager arrived, the councilmember talked about Sam Wang with him, before asking who his boss was.
But the program manager, unnamed in the inspection report, couldn’t reach his boss, the deputy director of the health department’s Health Regulation and Licensing Division. Instead, he told the councilmember that the decision to close Sam Wang would be up to the deputy director.
DOH inspectors, who had decided to close Sam Wang immediately until the councilmember arrived, left without closing the business after all. Instead, the deputy director of the Health Regulation and Licensing Division had to intervene before Sam Wang would close. Because of the councilmember’s last-minute appearance, a business that the Department of Health later described as containing “imminent hazards” stayed open a little longer.
In a phone call, Sam Wang owner Sang Oh Choi wouldn’t say which councilmember came to his store, claiming that he wasn’t there at the time of the inspection, even though his signature is on the inspection report as the “person-in-charge” at Sam Wang. Inquiries to the Department of Health about the councilmember’s identity produced a statement about the inspection that made no mention at all of the councilmember.
While it’s not clear which of the Council’s nine male members helped Sam Wang stay open, at-large Councilmember Vincent Orange helped them get an early reinspection and reopen a day later. Orange referred questions about Sam Wang to one of his staffers, James D. Brown. In an emailed statement that doesn’t answer whether Orange was the first councilmember, Brown acknowledged that that Sam Wang Produce had “sought assistance in getting a re-inspection of their operations” on Dec. 21.
Since it wasn’t clear from the statement whether Sam Wang Produce had asked Orange himself for help, I asked Brown to clarify. “I don’t know anybody else that they would’ve got assistance from,” he responded.
“A proposed December 26th re-inspection would have caused 40 employees to be off work without pay during the Christmas holiday, loss of business income, loss of DC tax revenue and effect consumers who purchase wholesale produce for their business operations,” Brown wrote.
Orange has gotten his own sort of assistance from Sam Wang Produce. Among other donations from Choi to Orange, the councilmember received $10,000 for his 2006 run at the mayor’s office from the produce store owner, his businesses, and his family members.
Unfortunately for Choi, Orange’s intervention didn’t mean the end of all of his problems. In a visit after the successful second inspection, WUSA9 restaurant reporter Russ Ptacek found new evidence of an infestation—-including two live rats.
Photo by Darrow Montgomery.