For Pa. health secretary, e-mails show one "little bit of a problem" after another

An American flag was added into the official portrait of Pennsylvania Secretary of Health Eli N. Avila (left).
An American flag was added into the official portrait of Pennsylvania Secretary of Health Eli N. Avila (left).
Posted: November 13, 2011

HARRISBURG - When state Health Secretary Eli N. Avila arrived in town last winter, a busy agenda awaited him. On Gov. Corbett's orders, every agency was cutting costs. And a grisly abortion clinic scandal had shaken the 1,400-employee Department of Health.

But as those employees soon learned, their new boss had other concerns as well.

"We have a little bit of a problem," an Avila aide e-mailed another state employee Feb. 16.

The problem: Avila's official photo didn't display an American flag in the background. The secretary was none too pleased.

"Sorry," Avila's aide wrote, "but he feels disrespected in some way and would like this to be taken care of."

Taken care of it was.

Then there were the $4,500 two-way radio for Avila's car, the badge and windbreaker emblazoned with the words Secretary of Health, the queries about getting a special license plate, and the Bloodmobile that blocked his official parking space one morning in May.

And the Harrisburg diner owner with whom he had argued about the freshness of an egg sandwich: Avila wanted to make sure that man didn't win a coveted state contract.

A series of e-mails obtained by The Inquirer depict Avila juggling all the above - even as he and his department navigated the tricky terrain of dwindling state funds and the aftermath of deaths at an uninspected West Philadelphia abortion clinic.

Avila, 51, 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.

The e-mails were obtained by The Inquirer from a state government source who asked to remain anonymous.

To be sure, nothing in the e-mails suggests Avila is slacking off on the job or otherwise misbehaving. They do offer glimpses of a man whose behavior became fodder for water-cooler talk around the Capitol after the much-publicized spat with the diner owner over the freshness of his eggs. That argument ended with Avila allegedly shouting: "Do you know who I am? I am the secretary of health!"

Through it all, Corbett has stood by Avila, who earns $139,931 and oversees a department responsible for, among other things, curbing the spread of disease and licensing and regulating health facilities across the state. Along with his other duties, Avila has vowed to personally inspect every abortion clinic in Pennsylvania.

The governor has said he thinks some people just don't like Avila's personality.

"I'm looking at work product," Corbett said this summer. "I think he is doing a great job on behalf of the people of Pennsylvania."

Where's my flag? In mid-February, the e-mails show, Avila apparently became upset that his official photo - which appears on the state's website - did not display the flag.

For the next week, staffers furiously e-mailed back and forth to remedy this.

An aide explained: Avila had been told flags were reserved for photos of Corbett and Lt. Gov. Jim Cawley - and typically "added in post-production" to the photos.

But then Avila noticed the Stars and Stripes in another cabinet member's photo. That would be Welfare Secretary Gary Alexander, whose photo, flag and all, hangs in the lobby of the building his department shares with Avila's.

"The DPW Secretary has a flag behind him in his photo, and my Secretary is not pleased," the aide wrote. "In fact, he does not want his photo hanging anywhere without one and would like it to somehow be [P]hotoshopped into his photo."

Eight days and as many e-mails later, a message traveled back through the state bureaucracy: "Attached is the portrait of Sec. Avila with the flag inserted."

The hoped-for reply followed: "Dr. Avila is fine with this photo," and wanted 20 copies. Today, the photo hangs in the department's lobby, alongside Corbett's, Cawley's, and Alexander's.

Asked why the department went to such lengths to change the photo, Health Department spokeswoman Christine Cronkright said Avila "requested a flag in the background of his photo as a patriotic citizen."

The photo problem had barely been resolved when another Avila aide began inquiring about obtaining a customized license plate identifying Avila as a medical doctor - and an emergency communications radio for his car.

By then, too, Avila had set about securing a badge and special jacket identifying him as the secretary of health - though Corbett's office later made him give up the badge, which Avila has said he paid for himself. The jackets for him and his executive staff cost taxpayers about $550 - his alone was $243, according to the purchase order.

Avila's office has said he wanted the jackets so that he and top staff could be easily identified when responding in an emergency.

As for the special license plate, Cronkright said Avila was asking only "out of curiosity." Pennsylvania, Avila's office was told, has specialty plates for nurses' and chiropractors' associations but not physicians.

Avila did get his radio. Cronkright said the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention picked up the $4,500 tab for the 800 MHz radio, and noted that it was part of the state's efforts since 9/11 to ensure an unbroken chain of communication in case of an emergency.

Cronkright also said past health secretaries had such radios, although none had them installed in their cars. "These are not police radios," she emphasized.

Where's the sign? Aides posed that question after the "Secretary of Health" sign was removed from Avila's parking spot in front of the Health and Welfare Building. Some officials' signs had been removed for fear of reprisal or physical harm after the Philadelphia abortion scandal.

Not to worry, Gary D. Forman, the Health Department's office services director, wrote on March 21. Avila's sign would be replaced "ASAP . . . to alleviate his problem with the public parking in his space."

Nonetheless, that May, a bloodmobile from the Central Pennsylvania Blood Bank parked in front of the Health building, taking up part of Avila's space.

When an aide told Avila the bloodmobile was there, Avila e-mailed: "Tell them to move."

The order was followed. By midday, a state worker was e-mailing her department: "While I was on the Bloodmobile today, 5/10/11, waiting for my turn to donate blood, all activity came to a sudden stop."

Someone from Avila's office "came in to complain that the Bloodmobile was in the Secretary's parking space," the worker wrote. ". . . Shouldn't he be in favor of something like the Bloodmobile?"

Finally there was Roxy's.

In an e-mail to Sheri Phillips, secretary of the Department of General Services, Avila discussed issues relating to his state car, then turned to an unrelated matter: Roxy's Cafe, the scene of his argument in February about an egg sandwich.

Richard Hanna, owner of Roxy's, was one of nine bidders seeking a state contract to run the cafeteria in the Capitol. The contract was being awarded through Phillips' department.

Avila said he had witnessed "unsanitary food practices" at Roxy's, and wrote: "It is my professional opinion that they should not have any nexus to food services with the Capitol. I will elaborate if you want to talk to me about the matter."

As he noted in the e-mail, Avila was alerting city health officials - whose inspectors found Roxy's in compliance.

Cronkright declined to comment last week on Avila's e-mail to Phillips, citing pending litigation between The Inquirer and Pittsburgh Post-Gazette and the Corbett administration. The newspapers are seeking state records of any communications from Avila about Roxy's and the cafeteria contract through a right-to-know request. The administration has opposed that request.

The cafeteria contract was eventually awarded to another bidder based on a complex grading system, officials said.

Told of Avila's email regarding his bid, Hanna said he would contact his attorney for guidance.

But all he had wanted originally, the diner owner has said, was an apology from Corbett's office for Avila's behavior.

He never got one.


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

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