Two Florida Department of Business and Professional Regulation employees accused of accepting cash in exchange for favorable restaurant inspections faced a judge Wednesday morning on felony charges.
Moses Davis Jr., 54, and Steven Rivera, 44, -- each charged with one count of unlawful compensation -- were ordered held on $100,000 bail.
Investigators said the two state inspectors targeted 17 different restaurants, asking for an amount between $100 to $300 to "look the other way" over potential health and safety violations.
"If he did it, I don't know why he did it," said Nector Rivera, Steven Rivera's uncle. "This is not the Steven I know."
The arrests are the result of a five-month investigation that began with a tip that a Florida Department of Business and Professional Regulation inspector accepted cash during an October inspection. Investigators with the Jacksonville Sheriff's Office, the Florida Department of Law Enforcement went undercover to document what they described as Davis and Moses coercing restaurant owners into giving them case.
"Receiving a favorable inspection in exchange for money is not only criminal behavior, but it also probably put our citizens at risk," Jacksonville Sheriff John Rutherford said.
While 17 restaurants were involved, they were not charged as they were considered victims. Officials said in some cases, the restaurants were asked for money multiple times.
A former state inspector told Channel 4 that they are trained not to ask or accept anything from a restaurant, even a glass of water.
"These two state employees used their positions of authority to prey on businesses," said FDLE Special Agent Dominick Pate.
Davis has been with DBPR for 15 years; Rivera for five years.
While each only faces one charge, Rutherford said the investigation is continuing and more charges are expected. The single charge could carry a sentence of up to 15 years in prison.
"Why would you want to put yourself in that position for that amount of money, for any amount of money, because your job is to protect the public," former prosecutor Laurence Yonce said. "That's what you get hired to do is protect the public."
So far, the sheriff said there haven't been any reports of illness.
A DBPR spokesman said the department is in the process of reassigning each of the establishments inspected by the men to new inspectors.
The department said it requires its inspectors to pass multiple tests, maintain a current certification and take continuing education courses. It's something Yonce said it takes seriously.
"They have their own built-in thing they do," he said. "They have an inaudible where the supervisor goes in the field and spot checks behind each inspector to make sure they're doing their job properly."
The names of the restaurants involved were not named, but Rutherford thanked them for their cooperation in the investigation.