Corbett's health secretary sued over Capitol contract

Eli Avila, Pa. health secretary, was sued.
Eli Avila, Pa. health secretary, was sued.
Posted: February 02, 2012

HARRISBURG - Do you know who I am? I am Roxy's lawyer!

That was roughly the message contained in a lawsuit filed Wednesday against state Health Secretary Eli Avila. The owner of Roxy's Cafe is claiming that Avila tried to block him from winning a state contract in retaliation for a now-famous dispute over an egg sandwich.

Avila's spokeswoman called the suit "nothing more than a publicity stunt."

Richard Hanna, owner of Roxy's, claims in the suit that Avila intervened to prevent his landing a contract to run the Capitol cafeteria - shortly after he and Avila argued over the freshness of eggs in a sandwich Hanna served him last winter.

In the suit, filed in Dauphin County Court, Hanna said he believes Avila "abused his power as a public official in a personal vendetta based upon personal animus." He is seeking a $500,000 judgment.

Christine Cronkright, Avila's spokeswoman, said the health secretary had not yet reviewed the suit, but said, "We believe the lawsuit is frivolous and will defend it vigorously. While the owner of Roxy's is worried about scrambled eggs, the secretary of health is busy protecting the health of Pennsylvanians."

The suit, filed by Harrisburg lawyer Charles E. Schmidt Jr., names Avila "in his individual capacity" and does not name the state as a defendant.

As The Inquirer reported last year, just weeks after Gov. Corbett tapped Avila to serve as the state's top health official, Avila walked into Roxy's, ordered an egg sandwich breakfast, and complained that it wasn't fresh enough.

A testy exchange followed, Hanna said, culminating with Avila shouting at him, "Do you know who I am? I am the secretary of health!" In the suit, the diner owner quotes Avila as having said "in a threatening tone, 'You don't know who I am.' "

A month or so later, a city health inspector descended on Roxy's, acting on a complaint from the state Health Department. And shortly after the egg dispute, Avila e-mailed the secretary of the state Department of General Services, through which the contract to run the Capitol cafeteria was being awarded. At the time, Hanna was one of nine bidders for the deal.

In the February 2011 e-mail, a copy of which was obtained by The Inquirer, 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." Hanna's suit quotes the e-mail.

Avila has repeatedly declined the newspaper's requests for interviews on the e-mail and the egg dispute.

 


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

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