On a cloudy afternoon in September, Chicago health inspector Charity Okoro arrived at Taste of Peru and began pointing out problems.
"She comes into the restaurant really mad, really screaming," recounted co-owner Cesar Izquierdo, according to city documents. He said she accused the restaurant of a handful of violations including cross-contamination for leaving an open can of beer, used for cooking, next to an uncut avocado.
Okoro issued a ticket for about $500 worth of fines but, Izquierdo said, she changed her tone when she learned that he suffers from back problems.
"Right away she stopped screaming, she stopped everything, you know, she stopped the inspection," he told city officials. He said she assured him she could "fix you up."
The very next day Okoro was back. But this time as a vitamin saleswoman.
Izquierdo bought $391 worth of Nutrilite vitamins, according to records. "I was a little intimidated," Izquierdo recalled. "This was the inspector selling them."
Izquierdo and his wife, Julie, said that after the sale was complete the inspector told them the date of their upcoming reinspection and assured them that everything would be fine. When Okoro arrived on the promised date, she didn't come into the kitchen but issued them a passing grade nonetheless, said Julie Izquierdo.
The Tribune found three other Rogers Park restaurants where owners say Okoro peddled her vitamins. Yet neither the Izquierdos nor any of those owners complained to the city's Department of Public Health.
Finally, in November, after much deliberation and loss of sleep, Julie Izquierdo decided to report the incident — along with supporting documents — to an administrative law judge when she went to contest the fines. The administrative judge reversed the fines against Taste of Peru, and a city investigation then led to Okoro's resignation.
It's a sequence of events that lays plain the difficult relationship between the city's restaurants and its regulators. The city says it welcomes complaints from restaurant owners, whom a Health Department spokeswoman called "our eyes and ears."
But in the course of its investigation, the city did not reach out to any of the restaurants where Okoro tried to sell her vitamins. Meanwhile, some restaurant owners said they assume any concerns they express to the city are likely to fall on deaf ears or, worse, be used against them.
"There is (an assumption) in food business that they will suffer terrible consequences if they step forward," said Logan Square Kitchen owner Zina Murray, who launched a petition last summer to change Health Department policies but said few restaurants would sign it for fear of angering the city.
Inspectors, in particular, hold great power in the restaurant world because a bad report or temporary shutdown can cost owners thousands of dollars and jeopardize business.
The Izquierdos contacted the city only after being chastised by the administrative judge for not reporting the incident to the city inspector general. The judge also shared the couple's supporting documents with the Health Department.
Commissioner Bechara Choucair said that restaurants' fears of retribution are "absolutely not" justified and that he is working to improve the city's communication with business owners.
"My message has been extremely clear," Choucair said. "If you see something that's not right, call me, email me, text me, this (@chipublichealth) is my Twitter handle, call 311, even post something on Facebook."
Department of Public Health spokeswoman Efrat Stein characterized Okoro's situation as an isolated case of a "rogue inspector that was doing something she shouldn't have been doing," and pointed out that Okoro had failed even to report her second job to her supervisor, in violation of workplace rules.
Stein said the inspector was taken off the street immediately following the Izquierdos' testimony at the November administrative hearing and was presented in January with a recommendation of termination, to which she had five days to respond. At that point, Stein said, Okoro chose to resign.
In the past seven years, the time period for which data was available, Stein said, the department has never dismissed an inspector for unethical behavior.
Okoro, who made $76,428 a year as an inspector, declined to answer questions about how long she has been selling vitamins and whether she reported her second job to her supervisor.
She said that she was not trying to use her position to pressure restaurant owners and that, contrary to Julie Izquierdo's account, she did enter the Taste of Peru kitchen during her reinspection.
The Izquierdos' description of the incident in interviews with the Tribune mirrored what they told the administrative judge.
Okoro initially scoffed at the idea that Cesar Izquierdo — a tall man and longtime business owner — might feel intimidated and coerced to buy her products but later reflected, "Maybe he got the impression that that's what needed to be done."
A second restaurant fined by Okoro, Thai Spice, came before the administrative judge the same day as Taste of Peru. After hearing the Izquierdos' testimony, the owner, Anthony Hubich, notified the administrative law judge that Okoro had also tried to sell him vitamins, which he declined. The judge upheld his fines, however. Two other restaurants also told the Tribune that Okoro had tried to sell them vitamins during an inspection, but the owners said they did not want their names published.
In hearing transcripts, Hubich said Okoro — in what seemed an earnest effort to follow the rules — made a show of separating city-related transactions from vitamin sales. He said that an hour after Okoro finished inspecting his Rogers Park restaurant, she returned with an announcement.
"She said, 'I punched out from the city so now I can sell you some vitamins.'"
The inspector said she could not recall ever being cautioned against such conflicts of interest. But Stein said that warnings against that kind of behavior appear in the city's required annual ethics training online, as well as the less frequent in-person training.
Clear, detailed training is crucial, said Dick Simpson, a former alderman and the head of University of Illinois at Chicago's political science department, who led a recent study that labeled Chicago the most corrupt city in the nation. But he said the city also needs to do more to encourage reporting of abuses and show business owners that it's serious about addressing them.
"Since we live in a culture of corruption, the expectation is that inspectors will either take bribes or advantage," he said. "Business owners expect to be exploited one way or another and the inspectors may well expect that they should be rewarded privately for looking the other way on violations. ... This owner wouldn't report it because it's just the way things are done in Chicago, they think.
Stein said there are several outlets for citizen complaints. In addition to calling the city's 311 call center, complaints can also be submitted to the Health Department or the Chicago inspector general's office. Restaurant owners can report by name or anonymously.
Simpson said the reporting process for the inspector general's office "is not well understood" and that the city needs to launch "a major push" to encourage restaurant owners to report complaints — and then punish abuses seriously.
Murray, the Logan Square Kitchen owner who circulated petitions, appreciates Commissioner Choucair's efforts but would still like to see a system in place that both protects whistle-blowers and keeps citizens apprised of the outcomes of their complaints. After she filed a complaint against an inspector last year alleging unprofessional conduct, she said, she received no follow-up call from the Health Department.
Health Department officials say that, although personnel rules restrict them from sharing information about internal disciplinary action with outside parties, they did launch mandatory customer service training, partly in response to Murray's complaint.
Stein further said that the department conducted no follow-up interviews with restaurants in the Murray case because it already had extensive information and that officials conducted no follow-up interviews in the Okoro case because administrative hearing transcripts were sufficient.
The Izquierdos still wonder why the city never called them as part of the investigation — or to let them know Okoro had left the department.
Even after making the complaint, the Izquierdos wondered for months if they had made the right decision and worried that Okoro could return. It was only from the Tribune that they learned the inspector was gone.
"It would have been nice," Julie Izquierdo said, "if someone from the Health Department had at least called and advised us of the outcome."Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun