Pa. secretary of health got himself a badge and a jacket

Eli N. Avila spent $553.82 for nine windbreakers.
Eli N. Avila spent $553.82 for nine windbreakers.
Posted: July 11, 2011

HARRISBURG - Stop! In the name of the secretary of health!

Eli N. Avila, Gov. Corbett's secretary of health, has ordered up new blue windbreakers on the taxpayers' dime, with Department of Health emblazoned on the front and back. The windbreakers, for Avila and his executive staff, also display the state seal on a retractable flap.

In all, the Health Department said, nine of the windbreakers have been ordered, at a cost to the state of $553.82.

Avila also dipped into his own pocket this year to have a badge made for himself, with Secretary of Health around the state seal - until Corbett's office nixed this idea.

Such are the latest actions of a cabinet member who briefly made news in the spring after his dispute with a Harrisburg diner owner over the freshness of his eggs ended with Avila's allegedly shouting, "Do you know who I am? I am the secretary of health!"

That episode prompted an angry letter to Corbett from the diner owner's lawyer. Separately, a state worker complained in writing that an Avila aide had made a stink over the blocking of the health secretary's parking space - by a bloodmobile.

Avila, a physician with an extensive background in medicine and public health in New York state before Corbett recruited him, declined numerous requests to be interviewed for this article.

His spokeswoman, Christine Cronkright, said the windbreakers had been ordered specifically for use when responding to emergencies. Avila believes they are necessary for easy recognition to ensure speedy access to the scene, she said.

She said Avila had been a first responder during the 9/11 terrorist attacks and "believed in the need for identification among first responders to efficiently ensure public health and safety."

Cronkright emphasized, "These jackets are only to be used when acting in an official capacity."

Avila, nominated in January and confirmed by the Senate in May, has pledged to visit all abortion clinics in the state to make them aware of tougher new regulations. He made the pledge to legislators after a grand jury found that the West Philadelphia clinic run by Kermit Gosnell, who faces murder charges, had undergone no state inspections for 17 years.

Asked if Avila intended to wear his jacket on clinic visits, Cronkright said: "Not sure."

She said Avila had the badge made up before he came to Pennsylvania from New York, where he was Suffolk County's chief deputy commissioner of health, adding that top health officials there carry badges for identification.

Cronkright called the badge "a mock-up" based on Avila's Suffolk County badge but said he had since gotten rid of it at the insistence of Corbett's office.

Asked to elaborate, she said: "The administration decided against that form of identification, and the mock-up was disposed of."

Pennsylvania generally does not issue badges to employees who are not in law enforcement. Instead, the state's civilian workforce is issued ID cards that typically display a photo and a job title or department name.

Those who carry badges or wear uniforms include state troopers; special agents, narcotics agents, civil investigators, and consumer-protection agents with the Attorney General's Office; wildlife conservation officers with the state Game Commission; park rangers with the Department of Conservation and Natural Resources; and waterways-conservation officers with the Fish and Boat Commission.

Administration officials, even top ones, "get the same type of ID cards that everyone else has," said Troy Thompson, spokesman for the Department of General Services, which issues the cards.

Asked if any high-ranking official in Gov. Ed Rendell's administration had had a special badge or jacket, Steve Crawford, who was Rendell's chief of staff, said: "No badges, just scars."

As secretary of health, Avila is paid $139,931 and oversees a Health Department with a budget of about $225 million. In May, his actions became fodder for watercooler talk after The Inquirer and Pittsburgh Post-Gazette reported the argument with the diner owner over the freshness of the eggs in his egg sandwich.

Weeks after the argument, a city health inspector descended on the diner at Avila's request. The health secretary later issued a statement saying he had felt a duty to report what he believed were unsanitary cooking conditions.

A separate event in the spring involving Avila's parking space also set off talk among state employees and prompted one written complaint.

On May 10, a bloodmobile from the Central Pennsylvania Blood Bank was parked in front of the state's Health and Welfare building in Harrisburg, apparently impinging on Avila's designated space.

In the complaint, a Department of Public Welfare employee told of having been in line to give blood when an aide from Avila's office arrived and insisted the bloodmobile back up so the aide could park Avila's car in his space.

This aide "was rather unpleasant to the bloodmobile employees and told them that no one had gotten the secretary's permission to use his space and they were not permitted to use it," said a copy of the complaint obtained by The Inquirer.

Cronkright said Avila would not comment on the complaint.


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

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