SAN FRANCISCO — Two former health inspectors have been accused of accepting bribes in exchange for passing hundreds of restaurants on food safety exams in a city known for its culinary scene, officials said Wednesday.
In addition to bribery charges, Ajamu Stewart and Clifton Sanders face felony counts for falsifying public records, said District Attorney George Gascon and City Attorney Dennis Herrera. Stewart and Sanders have pleaded not guilty and are due in court next month.
City officials said Stewart, 54, and Sanders, 41, allegedly pocketed thousands of dollars by selling safety certifications to nearly 350 restaurants in San Francisco dating as far back as 2007.
Gascon said the former inspectors' scheme showed total disregard for state laws and violated the public's trust.
"We take public corruption very seriously," Gascon said. "We want to send a very clear message to people who work for our government that they are held to a very high standard and if they violate that standard and trust, there will be consequences."
Officials say the former inspectors for the health department's Food Safety Program worked in tandem over an 18-month period and accepted bribes of between $100 and $200 from several hundred restaurant owners and employees to give passing grades on written food safety exams. The restaurants range from well-known chains to popular eateries offering ethnic fare.
Sometimes, the inspectors would administer the tests verbally and fill in the answers themselves. The exam included questions on the temperatures of hot or cold foods and the sanitization of food preparation areas, said Richard Lee, the department's director of environmental health regulatory programs.
About 80 percent pass the test, Lee said.
The scheme surfaced after a restaurant employee told the city's public health department in late 2008, officials said, leading to a probe by the city attorney's office.
"It is of paramount importance that the public have confidence that the employees that are investigating and regulating food safety issues are carrying out their responsibilities with the highest degree of professionalism," said Herrera, adding that most of the restaurants have since been recertified.
Rob Black, executive director of the Golden Gate Restaurant Association, an 800-member San Francisco-based nonprofit, said his group helped the health department recertify some restaurant employees through its food safety training classes in 2009.
"Food safety is very important to us and we want to make sure when people come to restaurants in San Francisco they receive the highest quality food and service," Black said. "When you have individuals go outside of the law, it undermines the public's trust, as well as the safety and quality of the food, and that's something we take very seriously."
Gascon said prosecutors decided not to file criminal charges against the restaurant employees because it would be a difficult criminal case to prove since some of them did not know the exam process.
"We believe the greater culpability here goes to the public employees," Gascon said. "They violated the law and that's why they are being prosecuted."
Stewart and Sanders face at least up to eight years in prison and fines up to $10,000 if convicted.