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Hollis Hills pizzeria owner arrested for alleged bribe

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A Hollis Hills pizzeria owner who was arrested for allegedly trying to bribe an undercover city agent not to write him up for health violations denied any wrongdoing Friday, calling the sting operation a “setup.”

Vito Spina, 63, who opened Vito’s Pizzeria at 78-37 Springfield Blvd. 20 years ago, said he gave an inspector $40 when he came to his restaurant about nine months ago because the man was “nice,” not because he wanted the man to overlook violations.

The city agent, an undercover from the Department of Investigations who was posing as a Department of Health and Mental Hygiene inspector, was offered the money after pointing out violations that included a pool of blood in the refrigerator and mouse droppings on the floor, said DOI officials.

Spina faces up to seven years in prison if convicted of bribery, a felony, according to the DOI officials.

“It’s a big issue to root out corruption, whether it be city employees or otherwise,” said DOI spokeswoman Emily Gest. “We applaud inspectors for reporting (the corruption) rather than taking the bribes.”

Operators of five other restaurants, including one in Elmhurst, two in the Bronx and one in Brooklyn, were also arrested for attempting to bribe DOI undercovers, said DOI officials.

“If I wanted to pay him not to write me up, I would give him $200, $500, not $40,” said Spina. “It was like a setup...The guy was really nice to me. I took him in the kitchen, took him around. When I gave him $40, it was in a friendly way, like a tip.”

Spina said the blood that the undercover saw was from fresh ground meat that had just been put in the freezer, and the mouse droppings were actually rat poison that the exterminator had put out when he came to the restaurant as he does every month.

“Fresh meat when it comes, it’s supposed to have a bit of blood,” said Spina.

According to the Health Department, Spina’s restaurant passed an inspection on April 27, 2002, but was found in violation of having “live animal present in food storage, preparation or storage area.”

Another violation was issued because the restaurant’s supervisor of food operations did not have a Food Protection Certificate, which is issued after an individual has successfully completed a course in food protection at the Health Academy of the Health Department.

Restaurants are allowed a certain number of violations during an inspection, said Andrew Tucker, a spokesman for the Health Department. Certain violations are corrected on the spot, while others require follow-up inspections to make sure problems have been corrected, said Tucker.

Spina said he had never had any trouble with the Health Department or with law enforcement officials.

“I’ve been in business 42 years, and I’ve never gotten in trouble,” said Spina, who operated a deli across the street from his current pizzeria for 10 years and a supermarket in Brooklyn for 10 years before opening Vito’s Pizzeria.

“The people come in to buy my food because I give them very good food, very fresh,” he said emphatically. “Vito’s is a family business. I cook the food, my wife helps out. Everybody in the neighborhood knows what they’re getting.”

Spino’s son, one of four children, said the family had contacted a lawyer and would sue the city for trying to ruin his father’s reputation.

“You ask anyone in the area, they know my father’s reputation - it’s great,” said the son, who preferred not to give his name.

The manager of a Gulf gas station and a neighbor across the street from the pizzeria said they ordered from the restaurant regularly and enjoyed the food.

“We’ve been here 3 1/2 years, and most of the time we order from them — pizza, garlic ties and chicken sandwiches,” said Sammy Singh, the Gulf station manager. “They’re pretty good, nice.”

Reach reporter Tien-Shun Lee by e-mail at Timesledger@aol.com, or call 718-229-0300, Ext. 155.

Posted 7:06 pm, October 10, 2011
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