Yesterday, we broke the story that Councilmember Vincent Orange apparently tried to influence a health inspection wherein inspectors found disgusting conditions inside a wholesale grocery store located in the unrenovated area of Union Market. According to health department officials and the inspection report, the conditions were such a risk to the public that they needed to close the establishment.
Evidence of a major rodent infestation included signs that rodents chewed through boxes of food for sale for public consumption and the vermin seemed to have their run of the place. Within minutes, a councilman now identified as Vincent Orange arrived to the scene, escalating the issue to a supervisor, the supervisor’s supervisor, and all the way to the Director of the Department of Health, who sided with the inspectors. While fighting to allow the business to continue selling food, Orange missed that day’s meeting of Council’s Economic Development Committee, which happened to be holding a meeting at the time of the inspection.
In less than 24 hours, after the Councilman’s intervention, the business was allowed to reopen with a nearly clean bill of health, despite WUSA’9’s Russ Ptacek finding less-than-clean conditions when he visited the shop after it reopened. He even noted visible rats running around.
Why would an elected official try to lobby to allow a business with rodent feces-tained products to continue sale of food to the public? It seems like an odd cause for an elected official to take up on a moment’s notice, especially while the economic development committee is meeting. We wonder about Orange’s motivation, but we do know there’s a long-standing relationship between the owners of the grocery store and the sitting councilman.
For the past decade, Sam Wang Produce’s owner Sang Oh Choi, related family, and his businesses have given generously to Vincent Orange’s campaigns and consituent service funds. In several notable cases, different familiy members and business entities made high-dollar donations on the same day, and Orange is no stranger to “suspicious” same-day donations from multiple persons. Other media covering this story have stated Orange’s 2006 campaign received $8,000 in donations from related entities, but we found more than double that.
Over the past decade, we uncovered $19,500 in contributions to Orange’s campaigns from various persons and entities using Sam Wang’s 300-A Morse St NE address. Most contributions were to Orange’s 2006 failed mayoral bid, his 2010 campaign for Council chairman, and his 2012 campaign for his current at-large seat. The latest campaign contribution came in October. From Office of Campaign Finance records:
|10/8/2012||$1,000.00||Choi, Sang Oh||Re-Elect Orange At Large 2012|
|12/10/2011||$1,000.00||Choi, Chung Jae||Re-Elect Orange At Large 2012|
|12/10/2011||$1,000.00||Sang Oh & Company Inc||Re-Elect Orange At Large 2012|
|12/10/2011||$1,000.00||S.W. Produce Inc||Re-Elect Orange At Large 2012|
|6/7/2010||$1,000.00||Sang Oh & Company, Inc||Orange for Chair|
|6/7/2010||$1,000.00||S.W. Produce Inc||Orange for Chair|
|1/10/2006||$2,000.00||Choi, Mrs Jai||2006 Orange for Mayor|
|1/10/2006||$2,000.00||Choi, Mrs Sang Oh||2006 Orange for Mayor|
|6/23/2005||$2,000.00||Sam Wang Produce, Inc.||2006 Orange for Mayor|
|6/23/2005||$3,000.00||Sang Oh & Co. Inc.||2006 Orange for Mayor|
|6/23/2005||$2,000.00||Choi, Sang||2006 Orange for Mayor|
|6/23/2005||$2,000.00||Choi, Chung||2006 Orange for Mayor|
|4/26/2002||$500.00||Sam Wang Produce, Inc.||Committee To Re-Elect Vincent Orange, Orange 2002|
In addition to the above, similar entities contributed $1500.00 to Orange’s constituent service fund in 2011 and 2012, making up a majority of the cash donated to that fund from ZIP code 20002. In total, Choi/Sam Wang-related entities have contributed at least $21,000 to Orange’s campaign and constituent service fund.
The connections don’t stop with a long history of campaign contributions, however. In 2006, the Washington Post noted Choi was working with Councilman Orange (then representing Ward 5), who was instrumental pusing Choi’s agenda to redevelop his aging properties into a high-density mixed-use “mini-city of condominiums, townhouses, offices, retail, a YMCA and new quarters for the wholesalers and vendors”. That same year, Council passed legislation naming Choi and a New York-based company as master developers of the market area. Of note, Choi-related entities contributed $13,000 to Councilman Orange’s 2006 failed campaign for mayor.
Last year, another Washington Post article recalled Choi’s revelopment plans, and that his partnership with the New York real estale firm hired local attorney John Ray, who is “known for his close ties to then-Ward 5 council member Harry Thomas Jr., to lobby the D.C. Council. ” Following Thomas’s corruption allegations and subsequent conviction, Choi’s New Town development didn’t take off.
Now, South Carolina based developer Edens, who developed the newly-renovated area of Union Market, has created a new joint venture to help move development of Choi’s property forward at Florida Avenue and 4th Street NE. The Post quoted Edens’ managing director as stating Choi is “an “incredibly hard worker” and a “true American success story.”
We should note that the donations made by Choi and related entities seem to fall within campaign finance limits, but several questions arise when looking at the total situation. What would drive a sitting city councilman to lobby to keep a rodent-infested store open so it could continue selling products? Why did different entities and persons donate the maximum allowable amount to Orange’s campaign on the same day? Why did so many different persons list a warehouse on Morse St NE as their address?