Corbett health secretary in dispute with diner over eggs

Eli N. Avila , newly confirmed as Pa. health secretary.
Eli N. Avila , newly confirmed as Pa. health secretary.
Posted: May 20, 2011

HARRISBURG - Gov. Corbett's newly minted secretary of health likes his eggs fresh off the grill - very fresh.

Diner owner Richard Hanna says he found that out the hard way.

Hanna says that just weeks after Corbett tapped Eli N. Avila to serve as the state's top health official, Avila walked into Hanna's restaurant opposite the Capitol, ordered an egg sandwich breakfast, and angrily complained that it wasn't fresh enough.

What followed, Hanna says, was a testy exchange that culminated with Avila's shouting, "Do you know who I am? I am the secretary of health!"

A month or so later, a city health inspector descended on the restaurant, Roxy's Cafe.

A Harrisburg city spokesman confirmed Thursday that the visit was triggered by a complaint from the state Health Department - about eggs, no less.

Avila, who came to Pennsylvania from New York and received state Senate confirmation two weeks ago, declined a request for an interview for this article.

Instead, his office e-mailed this statement, saying the incident was in January: "Secretary Avila went to Roxy's . . . and noticed what he believed were unsanitary cooking conditions. As the secretary of health, he felt it was his duty to report this incident to the city of Harrisburg."

That was not how the diner owner saw it. Avila "is using his power the wrong way," Hanna complained in an interview at Roxy's, a longtime staple for many in the Capitol, from secretaries to senators.

Hanna, who has run Roxy's for 14 years, reluctantly agreed to answer questions about the episode. "I was stressed out about the whole thing," he said. "This is how I support my family. I'm not going to give you a bad sandwich."

Corbett's office did not return calls or e-mails seeking comment about Hanna's complaints about the governor's appointee. Corbett has been staying at his home in Shaler, outside Pittsburgh, this week, recuperating from back surgery.

Hanna gave this account of what happened one frigid morning:

It was shortly before 7 a.m. and Roxy's had just opened. Hanna was cooking eggs on the grill for himself and his longtime waiter, George Amsbacker, when a customer walked in, ordered an egg sandwich, and said he was in a hurry.

To accommodate him, Hanna said he used the eggs he had just cracked for himself, which by then were cooking on the grill.

That apparently did not go over well.

Amsbacker picked up the story from there. He said that after he served the sandwich, the customer said, "Excuse me, what is this? I'm not eating that; it was laying back on the grill."

Tense words flew back and forth. Hanna said he asked the customer to leave. It was then, by Hanna's account, that the customer loudly announced that he was "the secretary of health."

Hanna said he called the Governor's Office to complain, and subsequently had his lawyer write a letter to Corbett's office. The letter claimed Hanna could prove that Avila had "created an incident" in Roxy's

"All I want is an apology," the diner owner said.

Robert Philbin, a spokesman for the city of Harrisburg, said the inspection of Roxy's in late March was the result of a phone call from a woman identifying herself as a state Department of Health employee who complained about improper handling of eggs. Philbin said that was an unusual origin for such a complaint.

Philbin said Roxy's was due for its annual city health inspection anyway - but was moved up on the priority list because of the complaint.

"In the food-service industry, when you prepare eggs, they're supposed to be made fresh for the customer," Philbin said Thursday. "According to the [diner] operator, he was preparing his own eggs and he gave his eggs to the customer, so he was found to be in compliance."

The inspection did turn up six violations that Philbin characterized as minor and typical. They included failure to store wiping cloths in a sanitizing solution and failure to post signs reminding Roxy's employees to wash their hands.

Hanna's lawyer, Albert J. Hajjar, said he wrote a letter to Corbett's deputy chief of staff soon after the inspection to request a meeting. The lawyer said he never got a reply.

"Our strategy was to inform the governor, who could then make another evaluation of this cabinet officer," Hajjar said.

The episode did not get mentioned at Avila's Senate confirmation hearing.

Avila is a practicing physician and lawyer who served as a top health official in Suffolk County, N.Y., before Corbett appointed him, according to the Pennsylvania Health Department website. As secretary of health, he is paid $139,931 and oversees a budget of about $300 million.

Hajjar said he understood that Avila must have felt hurt to have been asked to leave the restaurant, but that public officials should have thicker skins about such things.

"I can't believe a guy would do all this over an egg," he said.


Angelo Couloumbis is an Inquirer Staff Writer. Tracie Mauriello is a Pittsburgh Post-Gazette Staff Writer

Contact staff writer Angela Couloumbis at 717-787-5934 or acouloumbis@phillynews.com.

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