After an investigation that began with a tip that a Florida restaurant inspector accepted cash to look the other way during an October 2011 inspection, two Florida Department of Business and Professional Regulation employees are facing charges for telling restaurant owners they "would give favorable inspections for money."
While Moses Davis Jr., 54, and Steven Rivera, 44, were arrested and charged with one count each of unlawful compensation, Jacksonville Sheriff John Rutherford said they targeted 17 different restaurants, asking for an amount between $100 to $300 to give a favorable report.
"Receiving a favorable inspection in exchange for money is not only criminal behavior, but it also probably put our citizens at risk," Rutherford said. "They would go in and give favorable inspections for money."
The joint investigation between the Jacksonville Sheriff's Office's Integrity Unit, the Florida Department of Law Enforcement, the DBPR and the Clay County Sheriff's Office included undercover operations with the cooperation of some of the restaurants involved.
Investigators said the 17 restaurants were coerced into giving money and were, thus, considered victims. Officials said in some cases, the restaurants were asked for money multiple times.
"These two state employees used their positions of authority to prey on businesses," said FDLE Special Agent Dominick Pate.
Davis has been with DPR for 15 years; Rivera for five years.
"It's really surprising to hear that this would be taking place because the state says their whole goal is to keep people who are eating safe in a healthy environment," said Channel 4's Melanie Lawson, who reports every week about restaurant inspections. "While (inspectors) may have relationships or they may know the owner of a restaurant they're inspecting, this would go against everything they believe in, which is really to keep the food healthy and to keep people eating there safe."
The names of the restaurants involved were not named, but Rutherford thanked them for their cooperation in the investigation.
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.
Channel 4 Crime Analyst Ken Jefferson said the arrests are good for the public.
"You can imagine the hazard and the health danger that the general public faces if they go to these restaurants and they aren’t up to par but they are under the pretenses that they are," said Jefferson.
Carol Dover, president and CEO of the Florida Restaurant and Lodging Association, released this statement:
"We commend the Florida Department of Business and Professional Regulation, the Florida Department of Law Enforcement and the Jacksonville Sheriff's Office for working together and taking swift and immediate action against the illegal activities conducted by the accused state employed restaurant inspectors. The mission of the Florida Restaurant and Lodging Association is to protect, educate and promote the hospitality industry. The FRLA's over 10,000 members ensure Florida's hotels and restaurants keep the health and safety of the public as their No. 1 priority each and every day. This isolated incident is reprehensible and we trust those charged will receive the maximum punishment allowed by law."