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D.C. Councilman Vincent Orange helped campaign donor who owned rat-infested store

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Local,DC,Alan Blinder,D.C. Council

When D.C. Councilman Vincent Orange rushed to a rat-infested produce warehouse last year to speak to health inspectors who were threatening to close the business, he wasn't scrambling to aid an unknown constituent.

Instead, the at-large councilman moved swiftly to help a campaign donor who previously relied on the lawmaker to make his case for a controversial $1.2 billion development deal, a project that stalled during the recession.

Orange's relationship with the wholesaler's owner, Sang Oh Choi, is close: Records show that Choi or people or businesses with ties to him have given more than $19,000 to Orange's campaigns.

And when Choi in 2006 sought council backing for a massive development project, Orange was a key ally.

"They were kind of hijacking the project," recalled former Councilwoman Sharon Ambrose, who opposed the plan. "He was really pushing it hard."

Choi couldn't be reached for comment.

Orange again helped Choi on Dec. 21 when the D.C. Department of Health found "numerous rodent droppings" during a routine inspection of Sam Wang Produce.SClBHealth officials ordered the store closed until it could resolve its infestation and face another inspection.

But records show Orange arrived at the property within minutes and asked for the names of two inspectors' supervisors and "discussed the situation" with the program manager.

Orange said later he was worried the store would not be reinspected until after Christmas, putting workers' paychecks in jeopardy. Inspectors closed the store anyway.

The agency conducted another review on Dec. 22 and allowed the store to reopen.SClBOrange insisted to The Washington Examiner on Tuesday, however, that his actions weren't improper.

"I intervene for constituents all the time," he said. "That's what a council member does."

Orange said he sought to appeal to supervisors because rank-and-file employees didn't recognize the consequences of a delayed reinspection.

"He was more in tune to the fact that 40 employees would be off for three days," Orange said of one supervisor.

But Ambrose, who left office in 2007, said she thought Orange's conduct was "outrageous."

"That's not constituent services work," she said. "That's interfering with a regulatory agency's mission."

Council Chairman Phil Mendelson said "there is sometimes a fine line between a member advocating on behalf of a constituent and interfering with the appropriate regulatory process," though he did not criticize Orange's conduct.

Mendelson also said he was exploring "whether there's something the council ought to do" about the incident, but he said he didn't anticipate formal action.

ablinder@washingtonexaminer.com

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