State official insists he's blameless in 'egg-gate' flap

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Roxy's Cafe in Harrisburg, scene of a confrontation between Pennsylvania Health Secretary Eli Avila and cafe owner Richard Hanna. Avila says he never asked "Do you know who I am?" (Paul Chaplin / The Patriot News)

HARRISBURG - That "Do you know who I am?" line? He never said it.

So insists Gov. Corbett's secretary of health, Eli Avila, in legal papers filed this week in the federal lawsuit against him by a Harrisburg diner owner.

The response marks the first time Avila has given his side of the story on the dispute over an egg sandwich that has come to be known around the Capitol as "egg-gate."

Avila's side goes something like this: None of the allegations that he got into a heated argument over the freshness of the eggs in his egg sandwich is true.

To boot, Avila says he did not, in retaliation, try to block the man who made the sandwich, diner owner Richard Hanna, from winning a lucrative state contract.

Chuck Schmidt, Hanna's attorney, said the diner owner stuck by his version of events. And, he added, he expects the case to go to trial.

Avila, through a spokeswoman, would not comment further. He is being represented by the state Attorney General's Office, which also declined comment.

 

Hanna's version

Hanna, who owns Roxy's Cafe across the street from the state Capitol, sued Avila last month, contending that Avila "abused his power as a public official in a personal vendetta" against him. He is suing Avila in his individual capacity and is seeking a $500,000 judgment.

Hanna claims that just weeks after Corbett tapped Avila to serve as the state's top health official in January last year, Avila walked into Roxy's, ordered an egg-sandwich breakfast, and complained the eggs were not fresh enough.

A testy exchange followed, which Hanna has said culminated with Avila shouting at him, "Do you know who I am? I am the secretary of health!" In his 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 visited Roxy's, acting on a complaint from the state Health Department. Shortly after the egg dispute, Avila e-mailed the secretary of the state Department of General Services, through which a contract to run the Capitol cafeteria was being awarded. Hanna was one of nine bidders for the deal.

In the February 2011 e-mail, a copy of which The Inquirer obtained, Avila wrote that he had witnessed "unsanitary food practices" at Roxy's and added: "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."

 

Avila's version

Avila acknowledges he sent the e-mail. But he says that Hanna's bid for the cafeteria contract was flawed from the start, that Hanna never corrected the problem, and that his e-mail played no role in the decision to award the deal to another bidder. In fact, Avila alleges, the committee that made the contract decision was unaware of his e-mail.

Avila also acknowledges that he contacted Harrisburg health inspectors but denies that he did so because he was angry over the way that egg sandwich was cooked.

Avila says that when he ordered the sandwich, Hanna slapped a pre-cooked egg onto the griddle. When Avila told him it was unsafe to serve eggs prepared that way, "Hanna responded with hostility, obtaining a new egg and throwing it down onto the griddle along with its shell."

Avila says he then canceled the order and left - without telling Hanna who he was.

"Defendant Avila never made this statement, nor did he identify himself in any way," he says in his response.

 


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