In its first public sanctioning of a District lawmaker, the city's ethics board admonished D.C. Councilman Vincent Orange on Thursday for intervening when health regulators tried to close a rat-infested warehouse owned by a campaign contributor.
"His intention was to provide good constituent services," said Director of Government Ethics Darrin Sobin. "The line was crossed in this instance."
Under the terms of his negotiated settlement with the D.C. Board of Ethics and Government Accountability, Orange received a public admonition for his misconduct. He was not present on Thursday when the board voted unanimously in favor of the sanction, which is less severe than a reprimand or censure.
The deal, which will allow for the violation to be expunged from Orange's record later this year, also calls for the lawmaker to participate in ethics training.
The penalties stemmed from a Dec. 21 incident in which Orange hurried to Sam Wang Produce after health inspectors found "numerous rodent droppings" and ordered the store closed until it could resolve its infestation.
The owner of the wholesaler, Sang Oh Choi, had long enjoyed close ties with Orange, an ally when Choi pitched a $1.2 billion development deal to the D.C. Council. Choi and others with ties to him were also prolific Orange campaign donors, giving more than $19,000.
When Orange arrived at Choi's warehouse, he asked the health inspectors not to shutter the business and repeatedly insisted on speaking to employees' supervisors "when he did not received an answer he thought satisfactory."
After their interactions with Orange, the inspectors left the Northeast Washington store without shutting it down, though they later returned after a top department official said the warehouse had to close.
"Because Mr. Orange's conduct influenced the [D.C. Department of Health] personnel to leave the site of the business without issuing the notice of closure, allowing the business to continue to operate for several more hours, Mr. Orange knowingly used the prestige of his office or his public position for the private gain of that business," the settlement said.
Orange said that "the settlement speaks for itself," and he defended his work on behalf of D.C. residents.
"I don't think it reflects poorly on me at all," Orange said. "I come from a poor background, so I know what it means for 40 people to go home on Christmas weekend without pay. That was the motivation."
Thursday's action marked the second time that the ethics board, which began operations last year, chastised a sitting lawmaker.
The board said in February it had "substantial evidence" that Ward 1 Councilman Jim Graham had broken the District's code of conduct. The panel, however, did not punish Graham because his activities took place before the board existed.