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Phantom Tickets

On November 11, 1996, Bernard Silverman met with Lieutenant Steve Jett of the Houston Police Department's Public Integrity Review Group (PIRG). Silverman, a health department inspector, alleged that division manager Chirag Bhatt was destroying citations given by inspectors to restaurants for code violations. Like traffic tickets, such citations are supposed to go through the municipal court system -- violators can either pay the fine or contest the ticket before a judge.

If a supervisor or manager decides for some valid reason that a ticket should not have been written, he can void it, consistent with the rules, which require that the voided citation end up filed in municipal court. According to Silverman and at least two of his colleagues who also offered testimony, however, that hadn't been happening. Bhatt and other managers had simply been tearing up the tickets (without forwarding them) as a favor to their friends and associates in the restaurant business, Silverman and his co-workers said. "Many of us no longer write tickets at all," Silverman stated in an affidavit. "Why bother, when they will either be pulled or the supervisor will question your judgment?"

Bhatt rejected the charges, and still does. "I've never done that, and I don't know if anybody has done that," he says.

The PIRG investigation lasted more than a year; ultimately, no charges were filed. The reason, according to assistant district attorney Don Stricklin, is that no criminal wrongdoing -- such as taking bribes or receiving gifts in exchange for voiding tickets -- was ever proven. Stricklin can't say if all the tickets were properly processed, but as long as a ticket is voided for good cause, the fact that it didn't end up in court records isn't as much of a concern. "We're not particularly interested in that," says Stricklin. "That's not gonna be criminal conduct. That's administrative."

No one may have been prosecuted for breaking the law, but the department somehow still felt it necessary to overhaul its ticket procedures in June 1997 (though it took several months to implement the changes). The continued blanket denials of wrongdoing issued by those spotlighted in the investigation, however -- despite nagging questions and disturbing evidence -- raise doubts about whether an administrative fix can actually solve the problem.

Bhatt acknowledges that citations are occasionally voided, but only if there's a legitimate reason, and then only after everyone involved agrees. "We cancel tickets," says Bhatt, "But that's with the understanding of the sanitarian and supervisor."

The inspectors guffaw at the idea they've been included in the decision to void tickets. Almost every current and former health department employee interviewed for this story says it was common knowledge -- usually firsthand -- that citations for even egregious or repeated violations would evaporate before they left the building. "What happened to all those tickets we wrote?" asks one inspector incredulously. "Nobody ever asked me if they should be voided. They just disappeared."

Trying to figure out what happened to a given ticket from the department's records, however, is about as easy as guessing the number of pennies in a gallon jar. A complete record of every ticket is supposed to be entered into a database maintained by chief sanitarian Renee Beckham. But in the past two years, Beckham has absorbed additional duties and has only had time to type in a fraction of those issued, and many of the entries lack such key details as the issue date. "I could not keep up with all those tickets as they were coming in," she says. "It's not an easy system to keep up with because [the inspectors] write so many of them."

Beckham says that although the tickets may not be on-line, she keeps a record of every ticket on file as a backup. Although Beckham was able to produce copies of more than a dozen tickets on request, the records said nothing about voids, fines or any outcome whatsoever. And none of the tickets had ever reached the courts.

A copy of the citation is theoretically located in each establishment's inspection file, as well, but that system, too, seems in need of repair. Copies of several citations otherwise obtained by the Press were nowhere to be found in the files. "There could be one in there," admits Beckham. "There might be one."

With no indication of what happened to the ticket, establishing whether or not a void was proper is impossible. But a review of inspection reports and other documents associated with tickets missing in action casts doubt on Bhatt's claim. For example, on March 5, 1996, an inspector issued nine tickets to Stephen Food Store on Bellfort. The violations included "Refrigerated facility storing potentially hazardous food (rice & meat)," and "Non-food contact surfaces of equipment (large roach in cooker) not cleaned as often as necessary to keep the equipment free of accumulation of food particles."

Those tickets later became part of the police investigation. According to the PIRG report, the inspector's supervisor explained that since (in his opinion) too many tickets had been written, they should all be trashed. "He did not believe all the violations warranted citations," the report reads. "He later spoke to his supervisor, Mr. Bhatt, about the excessive number of citations, and they determined these citations should be dismissed."

Other phantom tickets lack even that lame alibi. Shiva Indian Restaurant in the Village, for example, was written up half a dozen times from 1994 to 1996 by several different inspectors for such transgressions as no sneeze guard for its salad bar and raw meat left uncovered at room temperature. Yet owner Ricki Oberoi apparently avoided any penalty, because the tickets vanished. Oberoi is a former president of the Houston Restaurant Association; Bhatt sits on the organization's board.

Bhatt denies any impropriety (as does Oberoi, who says he doesn't recall ever receiving the citations), but he offers no reason why the tickets never made it to the courts. "I don't have an answer," he says. "I couldn't explain."

He does have an answer to why there's nothing similarly suspicious about the tickets issued to the Exxon station on Stella Link that have also never been paid: He says he doesn't know any of those people, including owner Saroosh Khan.

Says Khan: "We're friends. We play cricket [together] and stuff like that."
Khan says he never mentioned his ticket problem to Bhatt, but that when he complained to supervisor Don Hsu about the actions of the inspector, "[Hsu] came and said 'don't worry, we'll take care of it.' "

Regardless of why the missing tickets were actually fixed, it won't be happening again, at least not as overtly. Now, all tickets go through several layers of review and must be approved by health department deputy director Earl Travis. "If one is to be canceled," says Travis, "I want to know about it."

-- Bob Burtman


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