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After fake restaurant inspections, Erie County plans changes

Restaurant inspector Timothy Bean supposedly visited three West Seneca restaurants one day in December. The veteran Erie County inspector reported finding stored food in an uncovered container at one restaurant, an improperly sealed cooler at the second restaurant and a bag of onions on a cooler floor at the third place.

Except there were no violations. He made it up.

Bean hadn't inspected the restaurants. Bean falsified reports, invented sanitary code violations and put fake signatures of fictitious restaurant managers on his paperwork, officials said. It went on possibly for months.

He might have gotten away with the ruse longer if not for one slip-up: He submitted a fake inspection report for a Tim Hortons that actually was inspected the same day by another inspector. Bean didn't check the software program that assigns restaurants to inspectors that day, administrators said.

Bean quit before he could be fired in late December. The matter, first reported by WKBW-TV, was referred to the District Attorney's Office, which continues to investigate.

Since December, the county's Health Department has scrambled to tighten procedures to keep its inspectors accountable. Health Commissioner Dr. Gale Burstein spent an hour before the Erie County Legislature on Thursday explaining how the fraud went undetected for so long and what was being done to fix the process.

"Ultimately, I believe Mr. Bean was a bad apple," Burstein said, adding his conduct did not represent the otherwise good work of the Division of Environmental Health. "Protecting the public's health is my No. 1 goal, and Mr. Bean's conduct undermined that mission," she said.

Health and Human Services Committee Chairman John Bruso called on Burstein to testify before the committee after a story last month by WKBW in which Bean admitted, "I completely screwed up."

Burstein said no one can recall a similar situation ever occurring in the department.

"We really didn’t have the experience of someone falsifying reports," Burstein said.

Why didn't the Health Department catch the fake reports sooner?

Burstein said that until now, supervisors were checking for technical report accuracy and weren't verifying whether inspectors actually visited the restaurants. Supervisors were also assigned to inspect restaurants to curb the department's backlog of late inspections.

That is changing, she said.

Among the changes:

  • Supervisors will spend less time inspecting restaurants themselves and conduct random, surprise field visits of restaurants that inspectors say they have inspected. As a result, the county's restaurant inspection backlog is expected to grow.
  • The software program that tracks restaurant inspections will generate an automatic email to restaurant owners alerting them when an inspection report for their restaurants have been filed.
  • The county has temporarily doubled the number of inspectors reviewing restaurants in West Seneca and Orchard Park that were supposed to be covered by Bean to ensure they are properly inspected.

Short of reviewing reports from months or years ago, there is no way to verify how long Bean – an inspector since 2006 – faked inspections. Administrators speculate it's likely Bean's pattern of submitting fake reports dates back to September, when supervisors noticed a drop-off in his productivity and spoke to him about it.

After the Tim Hortons report alerted supervisors to Bean's behavior, supervisors reviewed all his inspection reports the previous 30 days and found that 26 of 41 reports were falsified, Health Department administrators said.

Bean also failed to submit any mileage reports for November and December.

The county did not check Bean's inspection reports beyond 30 days because administrators weren't confident that restaurant owners or managers could recall inspections from months ago. High staff turnover also could lead to questioning of people who weren't present when the supposed inspection took place, Burstein said.

The commissioner expressed concern about keeping up with inspections. Most restaurants get two inspections a year.

The department requested an additional inspector for this year, but didn't get approval. County legislators responded they are open to hiring more inspectors as a result of this incident.

Read the falsified reports and investigation notes here:

Falsified Restaurant Inspections (Text)

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