DoH inspector, store owner deny claims of bribery
For three days straight, inspectors from the Department of Health's Environmental Health Services Division were busy conducting inspections at T.M. Inc. in Pago Pago. The inspections are believed to be in response to the photos and story published last Saturday, August 10 in the Samoa News- To'asavili about T.M. Inc. allegedly bribing DoH inspectors to 'look the other way' and bypass inspections, as they sell contaminated frozen foods.
Yesterday morning, the store owner, a Chinese man named Mu, was accompanied by a female Samoan employee to the Samoa News office where he thanked us for publishing the stories and photos. Mu has numerous businesses and says he usually isn't around to witness the day-to-day business activities at T.M. Inc. He said that since the Samoa News article about his store was published last Saturday, he has had to fire one employee — the meat cutter — and has made every effort to ensure his frozen food products are safe for consumption and the containers are up to par with DoH standards.
Mu reported that inspectors visited his store on Saturday, Sunday, and even yesterday, where DoH Director Tuileama Nua was present.
A Samoa News employee, who was present during yesterday's inspection, reports Tuileama instructed the store employees to discard the items discovered to be unsafe for consumption. Later in the day, the condemned items were loaded on to a van owned by Mu. A DoH representative was in the van as it headed off to begin the process of trashing the items, which starts with a written report prepared by DoH.
Under local law, business owners are responsible for paying all costs associated with the dumping of contaminated goods, even transportation.
Last Wednesday, Samoa News witnessed a refrigerated container full of frozen food products being unloaded in front of T.M. Inc.
A Samoa News source had reported the container was being unloaded because two DoH inspectors stopped by earlier that day to take photos of the contents. The inspectors told the employees to clean the container out.
The inspection was an unscheduled one, as head of the DoH Environmental Services Division Papalii Marion Fitisemanu told the Samoa News that there were no scheduled store inspections that day, or even the whole week, as they were already assigned to inspect DOE facilities island-wide.
Samoa News is withholding the inspector's identity, pending the results of an internal investigation on allegations of inappropriate actions.
After the unannounced inspection, one of the inspectors left with the container keys. Later that day, Mu took possession of the key.
Samoa News understands the exchange was made somewhere off site and both Mu and the inspector have denied that a $500 bribe was involved. Mu said he never 'bribes' the inspectors but once in a while, if he is present during the inspections, he will give them a "meaalofa" (gift) like sodas, water bottles, and food. "Sometimes, I give them $5 for lunch but never any big amount like $500," Mu said.
He vehemently denied giving out any bribe or meaalofa on the day in question.
Samoa News understands a former DoH official, who usually cashes his checks at Mu's store, had contacted the inspector that day and requested the keys be returned to Mu. The former DoH official receives monthly benefits checks that are sometimes postdated and over $1,000.
As a favor, Mu cashes the checks for the former DoH official - well before the date listed on the check. Currently, all stores in the territory do not cash any checks over $1,000.
Mu showed Samoa News one of the checks from the former DOH official. Samoa News understands in exchange for cashing the postdated checks, the former DoH official steps in and calls in favors when any one of Mu's three stores encounters problems with DoH inspectors.
The company's Articles of Incorporation lists Tausaga Vaoali'i, Tauolo Vaoali'i and Mele Sumile as incorporators of the business.
Last Wednesday's incident did not net a citation, as is the standard procedure for stores discovered to be selling contaminated goods. Sources say the employees were only given a warning, and were told that inspections would be forthcoming, and they needed to clean out the container and get rid of the questionable items. (Prior notice or 'warnings' are not standard procedure for scheduled DoH inspections).
A source close to the matter reported the inspectors told employees to get rid of the fish that were in the container, and Mu said he did just that. He said the fish did not belong to him, but to a friend, who had asked him if he could store them in his container.
The frozen foods unloaded last Wednesday included numerous cases of chicken, sausages, crab meat, and pork. On Friday, Samoa News sent a photographer to T.M. Inc.
Photos from that day showed freezer-burnt chicken being sold in the store's indoor freezer. When asked if those were the same chicken packages unloaded from the container two days earlier, Mu did not deny or confirm it. He only said they threw away what they had to.
Efforts by Samoa News to contact DoH Director Tuileama Nua and head of the DoH Environmental Services Division Papalii Marion Fitisemanu were unsuccessful as of press time yesterday.
In an initial interview with Samoa News, Papalii said cases based on allegations of inappropriate action by employees require an internal investigation, and disciplinary action, if deemed necessary, will be carried out.