Pa. health secretary in diner dispute over eggs

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

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

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

What followed, Mr. Hanna says, was a testy exchange that culminated with Mr. Avila 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.

Mr. Avila, who came to Pennsylvania from New York, declined a request for an interview for this article.

Instead, his office emailed 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. Mr. Avila "is using his power the wrong way," Mr. Hanna complained in an interview at Roxy's, a longtime staple for many in the Capitol, from secretaries to senators.

Mr. 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."

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

Mr. Hanna gave this account of what happened one frigid morning:

It was shortly before 7 a.m. and Roxy's had just opened. Mr. 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, Mr. 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.

Mr. 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. Mr. Hanna said he asked the customer to leave. It was then, by Mr. Hanna's account, that the customer loudly announced that he was "the secretary of health."

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

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

Bob 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.

Mr. 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.

"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," Mr. Philbin said Thursday.

Mr. Hanna's lawyer, Albert J. Hajjar, said he understood that Mr. Avila must have felt hurt to have been asked to leave the restaurant but added 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.

Philadelphia Inquirer's Angela Couloumbis: 1-717-787-5934 or . Post-Gazette's Capitol Bureau Chief Tracie Mauriello: 1-717-787-2141 or .


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