SALT LAKE CITY — Four Salt Lake parking compliance officers have been fired for allegedly accepting free pizza in exchange for not writing tickets.
Matthew Rojas, spokesman for Salt Lake City Mayor Jackie Biskupski, confirmed that "the city has terminated four employees for allegedly abusing their position as compliance officers in exchange for pizza."
"The city takes fraud, waste and abuse very seriously," Rojas said. "Changes have already been made to prevent this from happening again."
But the owner of the restaurant said no such deal was ever made to avoid parking citations.
"There’s no deal with anybody," Amrol Hararah said. "No free slices. Three dollars. Everybody can afford $3."
Hararah has been running Sicilia Pizza Kitchen, 35 W. 300 South, for 20 years.
"To set up free parking for $3 a slice is not worth it. I never have any deal with the city. I never have a deal with anybody,” he said. "You think this is worth jeopardizing somebody’s job?"
Hararah said his employees have their own parking on the west side of the restaurant. And he said those times when they have parked out front, they have been ticketed.
Hararah did say he has allowed parking enforcement officers to use his loft as a break room to get out of the cold and rest. That started about three years ago, he said. But he insists he never handed out free pizza.
"Everybody paid, because I cannot afford for everybody in the city to have free stuff,” he said. "I’m a business owner, I’m running a business. I’m not running a charity."
He said a representative from the city asked him for more information two months ago.
"I was completely surprised," Hararah said, adding that he doesn't believe any of his employees took bribes without his knowledge.
Rojas, however, said three separate investigations were conducted by the city's Human Resources Department, Finances Department and the Unified Police Department to avoid a conflict of interest.
Because the employees have the right to appeal their terminations, Rojas said he could not expand on his comments.
Unified police's investigation was turned over to the Salt Lake County District Attorney's Office to be reviewed, but the office declined to file charges.
According to District Attorney Sim Gill, there was some circumstantial evidence, but no "smoking gun." There were credibility issues with some witnesses, questions about what direction the parking enforcement officers had been given, but no evidence of a pattern of illegal activity. There was even a question of whether some of the alleged free pizza slices was food already earmarked to be thrown out. Gill said his office looked at whether they could prove beyond a reasonable doubt that a law had been broken, not whether someone used questionable judgment.
Among the "credibility/bias" problems, one of the main complaining witnesses — one of the parking enforcement officers who was fired and claimed his supervisor had helped set up the free pizza for parking deal — was previously fired from the Salt Lake County Sheriff's Office for falsifying timecards, according to the district attorney's office.
"The allegations he made were not sufficiently corroborated by other witnesses. Other witnesses also had bias issues with the suspect officers," district attorney's office notes for declining the case state. "They believed they had been mistreated by the officers."
The district attorney also noted that an audit from the Salt Lake City Public Services-Compliance Division in September "did not find any proof that the officers in question accepted payment (services, goods, etc.) in any form."
Gil's office also concluded: "The parking ticket data … did not show a clear pattern of voided or warning tickets for vehicles associated with Sicilian Pizza that was remarkably different than patterns for other vehicles and business owners in the area."
The conclusion also said there was "insufficient evidence of collusion between the owner of Sicilian Pizza and the parking enforcement officers. Much of the evidence provided to us to show such collusion was countered by plausibly legitimate explanations. For example, the owner of Sicilian Pizza stated that putting menus in windows of his vehicles was so the parking enforcement officers knew that his delivery people had briefly gone into the store to get an order and would be back shortly. He also stated that he would often give free pizza away that was going to be thrown out at the end of the day since he couldn't sell it the next day, but it wasn't exclusively given to parking enforcement officers."
Gill's office also said that attorney Rebecca Hyde-Skordas represented some of the fired employees and stated that "the officers were encouraged to give warnings and void tickets for business owners in the area as a form of community-oriented code enforcement.”