Pizza-for-parking scheme leads to 4 compliance officers’ firing, Salt Lake City says

(Rachel Piper | The Salt Lake Tribune) Sicilia Pizza Kitchen, 35 W. 300 South, allegedly gave Salt Lake City compliance officers free pizza in a special deal to avoid parking tickets.

For at least the past two years, Salt Lake City parking compliance officers have been forgoing tickets for employees at a downtown pizza restaurant in exchange for free food, the city says.

Documents obtained by KUTV-Channel 2 mention the scheme that allegedly involved at least four members of the compliance office’s bike team. The documents describe the scheme as a “’free pizza’ arrangement.”

Matthew Rojas, spokesman for Mayor Jackie Biskupski, confirmed that four code enforcement officers were fired last month. Three are appealing their dismissals. He said the city would not make additional comment, pending the outcome of those appeals.

The city learned of the alleged pizza-for-parking deal on Aug. 24 and has since found “an unusual pattern of both voided tickets and non-ticketing” for Sicilia Pizza Kitchen’s owner and employees, who parked near the restaurant, 35 W. 300 South, according to a letter from the city’s public services department to Officer Jeff Clegg.

Clegg told the city about the deal, KUTV reported, and was subsequently fired.

As per the arrangement, employees who parked at meters for work would display a Sicilia Pizza menu in their dashboard so the code-enforcement officers, who are not police, would know to not leave tickets.

Clegg told investigators that Officer Malaki Laulu talked about the deal when Clegg was training, and that he suspected the practice began before the trainer started. Clegg said he felt he would be “bullied” by Officers Laulu, Edgar Figueroa and Tyler Christensen for not being a “team player” if he didn’t participate in the pizza agreement.

Documents don’t mention the catalyst for the investigation.

On Oct. 6, the restaurant owner, Amrol Hararah, met with City Hall staff to complain about two parking tickets he’d received during the span when Clegg and the other officers were on paid administrative leave.

Hararah told staffers that he shouldn’t be receiving citations.

In a follow-up phone call with public services Director Lisa Shaffer, recounted by Shaffer in an email, Hararah “emphatically stated that the meters WERE expired” when he received a citation, but that he should’t have received a ticket, because “he had developed a relationship with enforcement officers.”

Officers used the restaurant to take breaks and eat lunch, sometimes using an upstairs “loft area,” in exchange for nonticketing, Hararah reportedly said.

Hararah told investigators in a Nov. 1 meeting that bike team employees received a 10 percent discount on food; a witness told investigators that he’d eaten there with the team and watched five compliance officers get free food.

Hararah also said former compliance division Director Ben Roberts had “initiated and approved” the agreement, according to the documents.

Hararah told The Salt Lake Tribune in a phone interview Tuesday evening that he had “no deal” with the city, and that his business already provides parking for employees. He said he complained to the city in October because he felt harassed by the number of tickets he’d received.

Roberts was compliance director from October 2011 to October 2015, according to his LinkedIn profile. He denies that he approved the alleged pizzeria arrangement.

He added that a bike team supervisor, Ryan Zumwalt, had come to him once to get permission to use a restaurant the team already frequented to refill water and take breaks to reduce downtime for officers who then had to travel back to their office for breaks or for water.

“I can state this because of my ever present desire to increase officer productivity, my understanding of the illegality of such an endeavor, and my absolute crusade against any appearance of enforcement favoritism/unfairness/corruption,” he said in a letter to Shaffer.

He said he doesn’t remember what the restaurant was called, but that he told Zumwalt that team members shouldn’t “take advantage of the hospitality” and should pay for all items they received, other than water.

The city’s human resources department and the finance department’s fraud, waste and abuse unit investigated the alleged scheme. The matter was also sent to the Unified Police Department for possible criminal charges, but none was filed.

“We don’t know why they declined to press criminal charges, but our two investigations found sufficient [evidence] to terminate their employment,” Rojas said.

The city, he said, has limited the discretion of parking officers to dismiss tickets, imposing stricter time limits and barring them from voiding tickets issued by other officers.

— Reporter Bill Dentzer contributed to this story.