Frontline Firing

Almost four months pregnant with her third child, Angie Brown hardly looks the picture of a hard-bitten health inspector with more than seven years on the frontlines. With her blue plastic headband, oval glasses and silver braces, it's difficult to picture Brown as a rabble-rouser.

But Brown hasn't been shy about voicing her disagreements with the way the food inspections bureau is managed. A member of Concerned Sanitarians for Change, she has gone public with her opinions on several occasions and cooperated with the cops during a ticket-fixing investigation. "They probably know that we talked [to the police]," Brown says.

Most recently, Brown went before City Council to air her current grievance -- she's been fired. On March 19, Brown allegedly stole 37 minutes of city time and falsified her daily report to cover it up. A manager in another section of the health department claims she saw Brown at the checkout counter of a MacFrugal's at the same time she was supposed to be following up on complaints at The Original Pasta Company and New York Pizzeria restaurants in the Meyerland area. Both abuse of city time and falsification of documents are terminable offenses.

That manager, Daphine Sands, hand-scrawled a note -- a month later -- stating that she'd spoken with Brown in the line as the inspector was buying "party favors." (Brown's car was in the shop for repairs that day, and her replacement vehicle had no tracking device, so no other record of her movements that day exists.)

Sands's letter wasn't the only evidence used against Brown. Two managers from The Original Pasta Company also supplied letters, one of which placed Brown at the restaurant the next morning. The other, a single sentence on non-letterhead paper written by assistant manager Nathan Laviage, professed that "During my shift from 3 p.m. until 11 p.m. on Thursday, March 19, 1998, I did not observe a City of Houston Health Inspector."

Only one problem: Laviage didn't work that day.
So why would he write the letter? Laviage says that Don Hsu, Brown's supervisor, came to the restaurant on four separate occasions and badgered him into writing it, though he didn't understand why. "He was putting a lot of pressure on me," Laviage says. "I wasn't really sure what was going on."

Though the other employee, manager John MacKeen, would not comment on the matter, another source at the restaurant confirmed that MacKeen's letter was also scribbled under duress. "He told me he was pressured to write it," the source says. (Both MacKeen and Laviage have since left the restaurant.)

In addition, both letters were written, like Sands's, a full month after the unauthorized shopping trip was supposed to have occurred. Ruks Bazunu, the internal house inspector for Original Pasta's parent company, vaguely recalls that an inspector visited the restaurant (he thinks it was in the afternoon), but says neither he nor anyone else can be expected to remember the details so long after the fact. "I could not see any credence to it," Bazunu says.

New York Pizzeria general manager Melissa Bernstein won't comment on the letter from company owner Anthony Russo. "The only dealings we've ever had with the health department have been positive," Bernstein says. "Unfortunately, at this point we're caught in the middle of some kind of internal dispute."

Hsu denies putting the squeeze on the restaurants. "I didn't badger anybody," he snapped, before clamming up.

Why it took Hsu a month and four separate visits to gather the letters remains unclear. Any audits of inspectors are supposed to be documented on an audit form, but Hsu never filled one out. His daily reports show that he did visit The Original Pasta Company four times at the beginning of April, and the supervisor admitted that he was following up on the Brown case. But the code he used for three of the four visits was for an "Inspector's Consultative Visit," an inappropriate entry if he was conducting an investigation or audit.

Brown says the contradictions are easily explained. "They're lying," she says.

Health department spokeswoman Kathy Barton says she can't discuss details of a pending personnel matter, but defends the agency's actions. "I do believe that the procedures were properly handled," Barton says, "and that we were justified in the actions that we took."

But Barton can't explain why the letters weren't written for a month, or any of the other troubling aspects of the case, though she did initially test a few excuses. The delay, Barton first told the Press, was because Brown turned in her daily reports weeks late, and Hsu had to wait for the paperwork before he could audit her. Later, Barton retracted that claim. "She did turn in her work sheet on time," Barton admits.

Even if Brown did fudge her time sheet, though the proof is shaky, that doesn't clear up the mystery of why she got fired while others who committed the same act were let off with a reprimand or suspension. In 1993, for example, an inspector was caught one afternoon in his city car exposing himself in Memorial Park by a vice squad officer. The inspector was suspended but then returned to work. More recently, an office employee admitted shopping at an antique store, for which she received a counseling letter.

And on two occasions last June, another inspector was caught in a conflict between his daily reports and his car's tracking device, which zeroed in on him at home while he claimed to be somewhere else. Yet the supervisor who noted the problem -- Don Hsu -- issued a reprimand admonishing him only for an inefficient use of his time.

While Chirag Bhatt allows that others who have been nabbed in similar acts have received lesser punishment, he claims that the current policy for abuse of city time or falsifying documents is "zero tolerance," a new change that coincidentally coincides with Brown's case.

Deputy director Earl Travis says the policy hasn't changed in years.
Later, Barton said that a system of progressive discipline applies to such cases -- the more punishment an inspector has accrued over time, the more likely new offenses will result in termination.

But as Brown's official termination letter clearly states, "Since her employment with the city, Ms. Brown has not been the subject of any disciplinary actions."

Many of Brown's fellow inspectors believe the case is one of simple retaliation against a constant thorn in the agency's side. "Just like they got rid of Angie," says one, "they'll try and get rid of anybody else who gets in their way."

-- Bob Burtman


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