HARRISBURG - Pennsylvania Health Secretary Eli N. Avila, who became known in the Capitol for a dispute over an egg sandwich and other episodes, has quit his $146,500-a-year post in Gov. Corbett's cabinet.
The governor announced the departure Thursday in a news release that said Avila, 52, was leaving to pursue "other interests" and was looking forward to spending more time with his family in New York.
"Dr. Avila's education and experience has been an asset to the department," Corbett said. "He has been a strong advocate for the health and well-being of Pennsylvania's children, especially in his efforts to make sure our students have the required immunizations for schools."
Avila could not be reached for comment.
He headed a 1,700-employee department responsible for, among other things, curbing the spread of disease and regulating health facilities. A physician, he also advocated for monitoring the potential health impacts of natural gas drilling and vowed to personally inspect every Pennsylvania abortion clinic after a grand jury revealed horrific conditions at a clinic in West Philadelphia.
Avila was deputy commissioner of health in Suffolk County, N.Y., before joining Corbett's administration in early 2011. That was when the incident known as "Egg-gate" occurred.
As The Inquirer reported, Avila had words with Richard Hanna, owner of Roxy's Cafe in Harrisburg, about the freshness of the eggs in his breakfast sandwich. Hanna told the paper Avila left the diner saying, "Do you know who I am? I am the secretary of health!" Avila has denied saying that.
Avila later directed an aide to call the city's health department, which sent inspectors to Roxy's. And he e-mailed another cabinet official who was involved in picking a vendor to run the Capitol cafeteria; one of the bidders was Roxy's owner, Hanna. In the e-mail, Avila said he had seen evidence of unsafe standards at the diner and did not believe Hanna should get the job.
Hanna is suing Avila and the state, claiming the health secretary tried to block him from getting the contract as retaliation for the egg-sandwich incident. Avila has denied that as well.
Avila also raised eyebrows around the Capitol by tapping state money to order windbreakers for himself and top aides with "Department of Health" emblazoned on the front and back; by getting a badge made, at his own expense, that said "Secretary of Health" around the state seal - until Corbett's office told him to give it up; and by insisting that an American flag be added to his official portrait photo after he noticed that another cabinet appointee's photo had one.
In May, a state employee complained in writing about what happened when a bloodmobile from the Central Pennsylvania Blood Bank blocked Avila's parking space. The employee told of having been in line to give blood when an Avila aide arrived and insisted the bloodmobile be moved. According to a copy of the complaint obtained by The Inquirer, the aide "was rather unpleasant to the bloodmobile employees and told them that no one had gotten the secretary's permission to use his space."
State Rep. Pamela DeLissio (D., Phila.), said Thursday that she had read of his rocky first year in Harrisburg but that after two days with him at a conference over the summer, she came away with a different impression. She said she found Avila personable, engaged in the work, knowledgeable on a range of state health issues, and independent-minded.
"The other things that had to do with character and ego, I didn't see any of that," said DeLissio, a member of the House Health Committee. She said that as a member of Corbett's team, Avila "was going to be who he was, and it was either going to work or it wasn't. He wasn't going to reinvent himself."
The governor has stood by Avila all along, saying he thought some people just didn't like the secretary's personality. "I'm looking at work product," Corbett said at one point. "I think he is doing a great job on behalf of the people of Pennsylvania."
Corbett said Thursday that Michael Wolf, the Health Department's current executive deputy secretary, would serve as acting secretary until a permanent successor is named.