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Then There Were None

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.

Kathy Barton first told the Press that the times in Scott's story and the manager's were a mere 15 minutes apart. When informed that the difference was actually two hours, she had a ready answer: "[Scott's account] didn't nail her right in the middle of the disputed time. It nailed her at the edge of the disputed time."

And though she's not calling Scott a liar, Barton says, he and Cotton are related, which makes his testimony at least a little suspect.

But Assem may have a bit of a conflict as well. Fiesta's chief internal inspector, Carlos Sanchez, is a former city inspector and a golfing buddy of Bhatt's, who has been with the department 18 years. (Bhatt says he's only played with Sanchez three times, but employees in his office recall more frequent trips to the links.)

The relationship between Fiesta and the city may extend beyond the 18th green. Assem stated at the hearing that internal inspections always happened before the city inspections. Apparently realizing the implication of that statement, he claimed a few breaths later that both the internal and city inspections were random and unannounced.

During the investigation into citation-fixing, a number of Fiesta tickets were determined to be missing. The police report is off-limits to the Press, but Barton says no link between the missing Fiesta tickets and Bhatt has ever been proved. "It was never determined where they disappeared from," she says.

That Bhatt has escaped prosecution seems good enough for his superiors. No matter that tickets issued to establishments owned or managed by other Bhatt friends and acquaintances also disappeared. No matter that the bureau which Bhatt has headed for three years was so poorly run that until 1997, when a Press inquiry revealed it, inspections were lagging months behind, and the filing system was a complete shambles. No matter that documents obtained by the Press clearly indicate that punishment has been meted out differently depending on the offender (though Barton says that never happened).

And certainly no matter that at least two current department employees say that after the unflattering Press article in July Bhatt threatened to retaliate against the story's sources. "He was saying that if he found out who spoke to the Press, turned that information in, they would be terminated," says one. Bhatt denies it.

The Civil Service Commission threw out the New York Pizzeria allegations against Cotton but upheld the firing on the Fiesta claim. The ruling came from commissioners Rodney Brisco and Luecretia Dillard after commissioner Juanita Elizondo, Fiesta director of corporate relations, recused herself. Commissioners apparently believed that Cotton told the store manager she was committing a fireable offense, despite her knowledge of Bhatt's connections with Fiesta and despite her belief that the health department was gunning for her.

They evidently didn't believe that Cotton had run into enough eyewitnesses to tip the balance in her favor. "There were still five hours unaccounted for," notes Barton.

Hearing evidence was restricted to the specific incidents at the pizzeria and grocery store, although a lawsuit over the firing would delve into allegations that it was motivated by revenge.

"Regulating retaliation must be a job that the commission wants to delegate to the local district courts," Cotton attorney James Fallon says. "If that's what they want, then that's what they'll get."

Cotton guesses the city will drag her case out for years, but she's in it for the long haul. "I'm just 33," she says. "I've got a lot of time."

E-mail Bob Burtman at bob_burtman@houstonpress.com.


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