Then There Were None

Health Department fires a final whistle blower

Bhirag Bhatt says he never knew who made the accusations that triggered the investigation. The head of the city health department food inspections bureau, Bhatt was the target of a 1997 police probe after several of his employees alleged he routinely tore up citations issued to health code violators. The District Attorney's Office indicated no criminal activity was found and did not prosecute, although the department subsequently revamped its procedures to prevent a recurrence. Now, Bhatt's boss must review and approve every canceled ticket.

Despite Bhatt's assertion that he did not know who incriminated him, the primary instigators have been fired in the aftermath of the police probe. The latest, Anja Cotton, had been a source of irritation to the department for years, filing various complaints and publicly airing charges of cronyism and other internal flaws.

An inspector for more than seven years, the feisty Cotton had helped organize Concerned Sanitarians for Change to protest working conditions in the bureau. The 12-member group helped wring a few concessions from the administration, especially after taking their case to City Council. Since then, most of the other members of the group have either quit or been fired.

After the city axed fellow inspector-agitator Angie Brown [see "Mission Impossible," by Bob Burtman, July 30], Cotton says, she took extra precautions not to give the department an excuse to do the same to her. She filled in every blank on every sheet of paper and otherwise went by the book. "I knew they were looking at me," she says. "I was just being real careful."

Still, she predicted months ago that the city would eventually level a serious charge against her. Today, she's looking for a new job.

A city letter recommending her termination alleged she had abused her power, stolen city time and falsified documents. It said that on August 26 she threatened to retaliate against New York Pizzeria for its involvement in the firing of another health department worker and that she ticketed the restaurant for minor violations, including one not required under the city health code.

The letter cited a more grievous infraction that occurred August 8. At 12:44 p.m. that day, Cotton showed up at the Fiesta Mart at 8130 Kirby Drive to conduct a routine inspection. Her written reports show she inspected eight areas of the store and left at 8:45 p.m. But the city contends that Cotton's husband whisked her away an hour after her arrival. She was accused of telling the store manager on her way out, "If anyone asks, I was here until 8:45 p.m."

To complete the ruse, the city claimed, Cotton returned at 8:45 to pick up her city vehicle, which is equipped with a tracking device and would have registered her as AWOL had she used it to play hooky.

Cotton says her firing is a clear case of retaliation. "I've been screwed," she says. "We're gonna sue."

The city's case on Cotton is riddled with holes. For example, Cotton cited the pizzeria when she found the manager sweating profusely in a kitchen overheated due to a broken air conditioner. Not a violation, says department spokeswoman Kathy Barton. "All rooms shall have sufficient ventilation to keep them free of excessive heat," says Item 25 of the city food ordinance, cited by Cotton in her report.

The Fiesta matter came to light after Bhatt noticed that her inspection sheets included almost no violations, which gave him pause. "It was highly suspicious that one grocery store inspection would take eight hours, especially when there were no notes on the inspection reports," says Barton.

Bhatt's diligence must have been lacking several months earlier when he examined a similar report of an inspection -- from the same Fiesta -- that had taken Cotton even longer to complete. "It just didn't catch his eye," Barton explains.

Cotton says the inspection took longer than usual because she gave the store manager time to clear up the problems she'd found, which were then omitted from the reports -- a policy encouraged by the department.

At a December 11 hearing before the Civil Service Commission on Cotton's firing, Fiesta manager Salah Assem testified that Cotton called her husband to ask him to pick her up, then left the store at 1:45. And he alleged she told him to lie about it if questions arose. He also said that Cotton had failed to inspect the meat and seafood departments.

But Assem had trouble explaining why he'd signed all eight of her reports, including those for two departments she supposedly never visited. The reports were complete, with departure and arrival times, refrigerator temperatures and all other pertinent details filled in, and "accompanied by Salah during inspection" was plainly written on each one. He didn't read them before he signed, he told the commission.

Cotton countered with a statement from her husband, who said he was at home with their daughter during that afternoon and evening. She also had testimony from Garfield Scott and Barbara Osborne.

Scott, a distant in-law of her husband's, had stopped at the Fiesta at about 3:45 and saw Cotton making her rounds -- two hours after the manager said she'd left. Osborne, another acquaintance, saw Cotton leaving the Fiesta at about 8:45 and had a brief conversation with her.

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