2 ex-San Francisco health inspectors accused of bribery for selling food safety exams

We’ve all heard tales and allegations of food safety graft, but public charges and convictions remain rare — a testament to the commitment and integrity of the vast majority of public health types, who often are called upon to enforce Byzantine political edicts.

Officials said Wednesday two former health inspectors have been accused of accepting bribes in exchange for passing hundreds of restaurants on food safety exams.

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 pleaded not guilty to the charges last week, and Sanders was scheduled to be arraigned later Wednesday.

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.

Both Stewart and Sanders face at least up to eight years in prison and fines up to $10,000 if convicted.

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About Doug Powell

A former professor of food safety and the publisher of barfblog.com, Powell is passionate about food, has five daughters, and is an OK goaltender in pickup hockey. Download Doug’s CV here.