New York's restaurant letter grades have been around for a year now, most restaurants have been graded and a majority have gotten themselves A's. But along with the rise of letter grades (and the increase in fines for the city's coffers that have come with them) something else has been on the rise: attempted bribery. Yesterday the police arrested a restaurant owner in Queens for trying to pay off an inspector with $500. His was by no means the first such case this year.
Earlier this month an undercover investigator from the city's Department of Investigation posed as a health inspector and visited Bungrill, a new restaurant in the New World Mall in Flushing, Queens. Once there the DOI says Tony Lam, the restaurant's 46-year-old owner, reportedly tried to slip $500 into the inspector's pocket in exchange for him overlooking a number of violations, including "uncovered food and employees not wearing gloves." He is now facing felony charges of bribery in the third degree and rewarding official misconduct in the second degree.
In June, Jaspal Singh, a 48-year-old employee of Darbar Grill on 55th Street in Manhattan was similarly arrested and now faces the same charge plus one for the class A misdemeanor of giving unlawful gratuities, the Wall Street Journal reports. He allegedly gave a different DOI inspector $500 in an attempt to evade having his restaurant's violations written up.
These latest arrests come only a few weeks after the city busted three other owners for making similarly unsuccessful plays, offering inspectors as little as $170 and as much as $300 for good grades. At least Lam and Singh allegedly had the sense to put up good money for good grades? Anyway, there is reason to believe that these bribery incidents were not at all flukes. Yesterday the Journal crunched the DOH's cleanliness numbers and noticed that a surprisingly not insignificant number of restaurants had scores that just barely made them eligible for A's or B's, while very few had scores that just barely put them in the B and C range. "The letter grade system has created such fear and anxiety among restaurateurs that it may push an honest person to do something they normally wouldn't do," bemoaned New York State Restaurant Association executive vice president Andrew Rigie.
"It's the one-year anniversary of the grading system so we've done seven cases this year and we've got a few in the pipeline," DOI Commissioner Rose Gill Hearn says. Earlier this year she warned that "Restaurant operators who foolishly use pay offs as the way to fix health code violations should heed these arrests: Health inspectors report bribe offers to DOI, and we swiftly investigate." But there's a flip side to this bribery crackdown. As one Health Inspector told reBar owner Jason Stevens, "If I go back to the office without violations on you, they're going to think you bribed me."