Whistleblower: Health inspectors turning blind eye to ethnic restaurants

by: Jeff Dubois Updated:

SEATTLE —

King County Health inspectors find some nasty things while looking for health code violations --like frozen chicken feet thawing in a filthy mop sink, raw chicken stored in a bucket underneath a dishwashing area or shrimp in a bin on a moldy floor.  But a source inside the Health Department tells KIRO 7 some of these violations are going unpunished.

A veteran King County Health Inspector, who didn’t want to be identified for fear of retaliation, said inspectors are often told to be "less strict" when inspecting some ethnic restaurants.

"There are a lot of decisions that are being made for political reasons, instead of public health reasons,” the anonymous source said.

In a KIRO 7 investigation, reporter Jeff Dubois went through thousands of public documents from the Health Department.  And he found a whistleblower complaint filed recently by a current King County Health inspector.  It accuses Public Health managers and supervisors of "abuse of authority" and creating a "specific danger to public health or safety."

According to the whistleblower, the complaint stems from a series of inspections at Macky's Dim Sum, a Chinese restaurant in Issaquah.  After five consecutive unsatisfactory inspections and failure to correct health code violations, documents show the health inspector shut them down twice last year.

Documents also reveal both times, the restaurant owner called a friend who is a King County Health inspector.  And according to the whistleblower, that inspector tried to keep the restaurant from being shut down.  When the whistleblower complained to managers, the inspector claimed nothing was done.  Macky's Dim Sum was opened a few days later before fixing all the critical health code violations.

Our insider said King County Health Department managers are turning a blind eye to the problem because of political pressure.  And that insider isn’t the first to make that accusation.  In 2006, a health inspector assigned to Seattle's International District claimed she was fired after refusing to "go easy" on ethnic restaurants and delis.  She filed a wrongful termination lawsuit and the County settled for $125,000.

A few years later, inspector Carrie Lange quit the Health Department because she was fed up with the politics.

"They didn't just tell you to go easy on them,” Lange said, “but when I was training, and I would go through with the other inspectors, they'd be like, 'No, you can't write down every little thing.’”

According to Lange, the problem goes way up the Health Department food chain.  She claims managers were more concerned with cultural sensitivity than public safety.  Her supervisors told her, "If we close down too many Asian restaurants, then it's going to start looking like we are singling them out and discriminating against them."

KIRO 7’s Jeff Dubois took these accusations to David Fleming, the Director of King County Public Health.  He told Fleming what inspectors have told KIRO 7.

“There are a handful of inspectors who go into these restaurants, see the violations, and let it ride,” Dubois said.

 “Of course,” Fleming answered, “in any program that involves multiple people, I can't guarantee that every single one of them is doing exactly what I direct."

However, Fleming said he doesn't tolerate interference from other inspectors, and the employee who intervened at Macky's Dim Sum is facing suspension. 

“There isn’t any favoritism for ethnic restaurants?” Dubois asked, “They’re asked to follow the same rules?”

“All restaurants,” Fleming replied, “ethnic restaurants and other restaurants have to follow the same high standard.