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San Francisco Restaurant Inspectors Accused Of Bribery

SAN FRANCISCO (CBS SF) -- Two former environmental health inspectors for the city of San Francisco pleaded not guilty to multiple felonies for allegedly soliciting bribes from local restaurants in exchange for food safety certifications.

Ajamu Stewart, 54, and Clifton Sanders, 41, both food safety inspectors for the city's Department of Public Health, were responsible for inspecting restaurants.

One of their duties was to enforce a requirement that each business employ someone who possesses a current Food Safety Manager certificate, prosecutors said. Such certificates are issued by the city and require taking a test.

KCBS' Bob Melrose Reports:

But prosecutors allege that over the course of 18 months in 2007 and 2008, Stewart and Sanders allegedly solicited bribes—generally between $100 and $200 -- in exchange for the certificates, then falsified documents to reflect that a proper test had been taken and passed to earn the certificate.

The exams test knowledge of food storage temperatures, sanitation procedures and other standards, and prosecutors allege that the suspects would either help in filling out the tests or give part of the test orally.

Stewart was arrested on Dec. 5 and pleaded not guilty the next day to eight felony charges of bribery, falsification of public records and perjury. Sanders was arrested last Thursday and pleaded not guilty this afternoon to nine felony counts.

Defense attorneys for both men declined to comment on the case after Wednesday's hearing.

At a news conference to announce the charges, District Attorney George Gascon called the alleged crimes "an abuse of discretion and abuse of power."

The case came to light after a restaurant employee reported the alleged bribery scheme to DPH, according to Richard Lee, the department's director of environmental health regulatory programs.

Public health officials notified the city attorney's office, which later turned the case over to the district attorney.

City Attorney Dennis Herrera also spoke at Wednesday's news conference.

"It is of paramount importance that the public have confidence that the employees that are investigating and regulating food safety issues are carrying out their responsibilities with the highest degree of professionalism," Herrera said.

The city's investigation revealed that hundreds of restaurant managers had been improperly certified, Lee said. Those certifications have been invalidated.

Gascon said prosecutors decided against filing charges against some of the restaurant employees because "it became clear to us it would be a difficult criminal case to prove, and we believe the greater culpability here goes to the public employees."

He said, "We take public corruption very seriously ... people that work for our government, they are held to a very high standard, and if they violate that high standard of trust, there will be consequences."

Stewart and Sanders are both out of custody on $200,000 bail. They will return to court on Jan. 4 for a status hearing in the case.

(Copyright 2011 by CBS San Francisco and Bay City News Service. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.)

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