Monica Yant Kinney: Health chief's ego trip to federal court

Eli Avila , state health chief, is being sued.
Eli Avila , state health chief, is being sued.
Posted: March 04, 2012

A federal lawsuit against Pennsylvania Health Secretary Eli Avila alleges that, in a cafe snit over an egg sandwich, he barked, "You don't know who I am."

For my money, Avila's greater offense is presuming a fry cook - or anyone - would care.

That's because Avila, a supremely qualified doctor, lawyer, and celebrity look-alike (see Gru, from the animated movie Despicable Me), toils in state government. In star-blind Pennsylvania, of all places.

Avila may fancy himself a public-health rock star, but he's a bureaucrat. He earns $139,931 for a job where as boss he is called Secretary. With the possible exception of Hillary Clinton, no one with that title merits much recognition anywhere.

The best bureaucrats do noble work but know better than to emphasize the first person; they serve at others' pleasure. They do what they're told even if it's the opposite of what they've been told previously.

Smart bureaucrats do not seek personal glory or make news of their own. They're point guards earning a public pension setting up political players - like Captain Corbett - to make the buzzer shot.

And yet, in the game of life, Eli Avila seems to play on a team of one. We've had governors with less ego than the man whose day job involves listening to a legislator worry that leaving a cellphone on his lap could cause infertility.

Crimes against bureaucracy

Avila's crimes against bureaucracy began after he arrived in the commonwealth last year, according to e-mail evidence obtained by my colleague Angela Couloumbis.

In one of his first acts, Avila told staff to superimpose an American flag on his official photo so he would look as patriotic as Welfare Secretary Gary Alexander.

Obsessing over image, Avila sought a customized license plate and a $4,500 two-way radio. He billed the state $553.83 for Department of Health windbreakers, but paid out of pocket for his shiny Secretary badge - only to have a chagrined Gov. Corbett tell the would-be sheriff to lose the hardware.

Last spring, an Avila aide, following the boss' orders, stopped a state blood drive to insist that a bloodmobile be moved because it blocked the health official's parking space.

And then came egg-gate, the tempest in a diner that has become a federal case. Who's funding Avila's defense? You are, dear taxpayer.

Whatever transpired as Richard Hanna made Avila's breakfast, this is clear: After the unsatisfying experience at Roxy's Cafe, Avila lodged a city food-safety complaint. (An inspector descended, finding minor violations unrelated to food.)

Avila also wrote a state official urging her to nix Hanna's bid to run the Capitol cafeteria. In Avila's "professional opinion," the "unsanitary food practices" he had witnessed should disqualify the restaurant from feeding public employees.

Secretary of Me

Avila is indisputably educated and accomplished. In his bio, he's listed as a physician, attorney, public-health executive, and medical legal expert. At a budget hearing last week, he told pols he's an ophthalmologist, epidemiologist, scientist, academician, and researcher.

When asked about hospital regulations, Avila slipped in the fact that he had been a newly minted Ivy League grad in 1981, when the rules were last reviewed.

Discussing a legislator's fear of Lyme disease, Avila shared that "I did work for the Secret Service and the DEA," examining field agents returning from drug raids.

"I would actually see the tick and remove it," he said. "It's real. It's hit me personally."

Some legislators were visibly impressed, but others seemed puzzled by the Secretary of Me.

"How are you doing?" asked Rep. Paul Costa (D., Pittsburgh).

"I'm fine," Avila replied. "You're probably asking because of my grandmother's passing."

"No," Costa said. "I was referring to you've had some bad PR over the past couple of months."

Costa offered condolences, then went for broke about the lawsuit: Win or lose, how much will Avila being Avila cost Pennsylvania?


Contact Monica Yant Kinney

at 215-854-4670, myant@phillynews.com, or on Twitter @myantkinney. Read her blog at philly.com/blinq.

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