A report released Thursday by the Erie County Comptroller’s Office claims field inspectors for the county routinely issue fines on local stores based on inspections that were never actually conducted.
Comptroller Stefan I. Mychajliw said the improperly levied fines resulted from inspectors in the county’s Weights and Measures Division ignoring state and federal guidelines requiring rigorous testing before fines can be imposed.
Weights and Measures is a division of the county’s Department of Public Works and is overseen by the state Department of Agriculture and Markets. It is tasked with making sure that measuring devices and labels that are used commercially in the county are accurate, to prevent fraud.
That entails annual and spot inspections of grocery stores and other retail businesses to make sure that the scales used to measure deli meat or bulk vegetables, for example, are accurate, and that packaged items, such as boxes of cereal, are properly labeled and actually contain the amount of product listed.
According to the report, basic inspection testing includes opening a batch of packages and weighing the contents. If the batch fails, state and federal inspection standards require that inspectors conduct more rigorous testing to determine if there is a problem with one box or can of a product at one store or if there is a much larger issue at the manufacturer level.
“Our investigation revealed that management within the department took shortcuts on adopted policy and arbitrarily enforced regulations. Stores may have been improperly fined for products that had nothing to with [what was happening] on their end,” Mychajliw said.
The 103-page report – three-quarters of which is charts and photographs – does not name any stores that were fined improperly or specific instances where inspectors took shortcuts. The report also redacts the names of the division director and the employees who provided testimony.
The division collects about $13,000 annually in fines from stores deemed not in compliance, according to the comptroller.
“If the state comptroller and administration agree with the findings, I will call for a full refund,” Mychajliw said.
A spokesman for County Executive Mark C. Poloncarz on Thursday criticized Mychajliw for sharing the report with the local media before handing over a copy to the administration. Mark Cornell also accused the comptroller of flouting professional auditing standards and grandstanding for the media.
“Since taking office, Stefan Mychajliw has continued to destroy the credibility of a once-award-winning audit department of the comptroller’s office,” said Cornell. “We have absolutely no confidence in the comptroller’s findings and will instead perform our own investigation of these allegations consistent with county policies and procedures.”
Mychajliw said the allegations are supported by testimony from 10 of the 11 employees in Weights and Measures, including the division director.
“That’s why we included in the report transcripts of the employees and the director himself. I mean, don’t take our word for it,” Mychajliw said.
In an April 28 letter to Mychajliw, Poloncarz accused the comptroller of abusing his subpoena power by unnecessarily dragging a sheriff’s deputy to the interviews with Weights and Measures employees, a tactic the county executive likened to intimidation.
Mychajliw defended the action as necessary to protect the integrity of the data-collecting process by the comptroller’s office.
Mychajliw said his office initiated an investigation of Weights and Measures in April, following complaints he received from an anonymous whistleblower. The comptroller’s follow-up investigation included interviews with the division director and staff.
“We were shocked that they were so open and honest about not completing these rigorous inspections,” Mychajliw said.
“The major problem with that is that without conducting the rigorous inspections, there’s no way of knowing whether or not the problem is at the store level or at the manufacturer level,” he added.