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Health inspector sues restaurateur.

Byline: CHRISTIAN WIHTOL Register-Guard Business Editor

Lane County health inspector Tamara Wilhite has served up a defamation lawsuit against Eugene restaurateur Mike West and his attorney, Alan Thayer.

Wilhite, in a complaint filed in Lane County Circuit Court last week, alleged that West and Thayer wrongfully sued her last year, defamed her, damaged her reputation and caused her emotional distress. Wilhite is seeking $150,000 in damages.

The lawsuit continues a nasty, tangled feud between Wilhite and West, proprietor of West Bros. BBQ in downtown Eugene, that started last summer.

Wilhite inspected the kitchen that serves both the restaurant and West Bros. Catering and in June and July found food-safety violations, including some related to failure to keep food at proper temperatures. Wilhite mentioned the violations to her husband, Eugene Fire Department employee Robert Wilhite, who wrote an e-mail to some city employees advising them to avoid West Bros. BBQ because food might not be safe.

West said the e-mail, which was forwarded to people outside city government, was defamatory and hurt business. He sued the city and the Wilhites. The city and the Wilhites settled in November; the city paid West $30,000.

After receiving payment from the city, West continued his push, questioning whether Tamara Wilhite could be fair inspecting his restaurants. In a Nov. 15 letter, West's attorney, Thayer, asked the county to replace her. In the letter, Thayer made derogatory comments about Wilhite, saying she had tried to "extort" $2,500 from West. The letter questioned Wilhite's "honesty and objectivity" and asked whether she was "fit to serve the public interest."

The lawsuit also says that on Nov. 30, West made a written statement that Wilhite's "lack of professionalism is frightening and downright dangerous."

In addition, the lawsuit says that earlier this month, West made statements about Wilhite that questioned Wilhite's "competence" to perform her job as a sanitarian.

The lawsuit also noted that late last year West circulated a petition to restaurateurs urging the county to remove Wilhite from inspecting their establishments.

West's motive, the lawsuit claims, was to prevent Wilhite and others from "truthfully and objectively reporting and disclosing health and safety violations in restaurants and commercial food services owned or operated by West."

The extortion allegation by Thayer centers around Wilhite's request that West pay $2,500 for her attorney fees before she agreed to the November settlement of West's lawsuit. In the final settlement, West was not required to make any payments.

The county recently took the West Bros. kitchen off Wilhite's inspection list due to the ongoing conflict between the two, said Rob Rockstroh, director of the county's Health and Human Services Department. "We would like to keep the process as objective as possible," he said. West and Thayer declined to comment on the lawsuit.
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Title Annotation:Courts: Lawsuit is second in ongoing disagreement between Mike West and a Lane County county health inspector.; Business
Publication:The Register-Guard (Eugene, OR)
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:May 30, 2002
Words:464
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