WASHINGTON (WUSA9) - Following a year-long WUSA9 investigation, DC Health has suspended two restaurants, acknowledged it is not doing what it claimed to penalize restaurants repeatedly closed, and has launched new protocols to more closely watch restaurants with closure histories.
In the middle of an interview with WUSA9, the agency's director changed department policies to require follow-up inspections of suspended restaurants and apologized for the agency not responding to our inquiries.
"I apologize on behalf of my agency," DC's Health Department Director, Dr. Joxel Garcia, said about the departments months-long failure to clarify policy regarding repeat restaurant offenders. "The buck stops with me, so anything that happened is my fault, so it is corrected now."
See list of restaurants identified as repeat offenders by DC Health in response to our investigation: http://www.wusa9.com/story/news/investigations/russ-ptacek/2014/08/25/restaurants-closed-health-dc/14567801/
In response to our 2013 investigation, which identified 30 DC food establishments closed twice or more for health risks, the health agency said it had a policy to request license revocations for repeat offenders.
The agency refused interview requests when questioned about the policy and Freedom of Information Act requests identified no documents to support the claim.
When confronted with the discrepancy, Garcia agreed to an interview where he acknowledged the agency is not making requests for permanent closures for repeat offenders.
"I think there was confusion that we had probably internally," Dr. Garcia said. "I'm not recommending that."
Instead, Garcia said the agency is focusing on educating restaurants about food safety to bring them into compliance with spot checks and special attention is given to monitor problem kitchens.
But at repeat offenders like New Big Wong in Chinatown and Heritage India on Pennsylvania Avenue – both cited for rodents - department records show not one regular inspection since the week they were ordered closed months ago.
When we asked Garcia about that, he told staff members observing the interview to change policy to ensure a follow-up inspection within 90 days after the offending restaurant reopens.
"We will change the protocols here," Garcia said. "This is what I would recommend, within 90 days a repeat offender has been inspected just go and review them again."
Not only did he change policy in the middle of our interview, a few days later Garcia was in the field with inspectors, enforcing the policy by visiting offenders himself.
So far, DC Health has closed three restaurants under the new protocol.
Now for the fourth time, suspending Heritage India and its sister Café Mirasol on P St, NW
You may remember the location from what we the rats we found in the alley behind it last summer
That was after back to back closures citing gross unsanitary conditions and rat droppings in the kitchen.
Currently, the restaurants' signs say closed for "mechanical problems," in Heritage India's fourth closure inspectors cited it and Café Mirasol with "operating a food establishment with circumstances which may endanger the public health"
Inspectors also suspended Vittorio's Pizza at Union Station, which had been closed twice before.
Inspectors closed all three restaurants Wednesday, and as of Monday night the agency had reported none of them as passing a re-inspection..