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Corbett's welfare secretary leaving

HARRISBURG - Gov. Corbett's controversial public welfare secretary is leaving the administration, according to two sources with the knowledge of the decision.

HARRISBURG - Gov. Corbett's controversial public welfare secretary is leaving the administration, according to two sources with the knowledge of the decision.

Gary Alexander, who oversees a department charged with helping 2.1 million elderly, poor and disabled Pennsylvanians, will be leaving his $149,000 post by the end of the month.

Reached for comment this afternoon, Alexander said he did not want to discuss his future, saying he preferred to focus on the governor's budget address to the legislature tomorrow.

"We've got a big day tomorrow, the governor has a big day," Alexander said. "That is my focus."

One person familiar with the decision said the secretary wanted to be closer to his family in Rhode Island. It was not immediately known who will replace him.

During his two-year tenure, Alexander has frequently become a lightning rod for public anger over the Corbett administration's cuts to l social welfare services. Soon after his arrival in the Capitol in January 2011, he was placed in charge of the administration's push to cut what it called "waste, fraud and abuse" within the department, and his decisions were not without controversy.

In January 2012 Alexander announced the department was instituting an asset test - making the amount of food stamps that people receive contingent on the assets they possess.

It was an unexpected move that bucked national trends -- favored by both Democrats and Republicans, to eliminate asset tests altogether -- since they are viewed as punitive toward elderly people saving for their burials, poor people trying to save enough to get out of poverty, and working- and middle-class people who lost their jobs in the recession and would have to liquidate assets to feed their families.

Alexander's department also faced sharp questions about children being dropped from Pennsylvania's Medicaid rolls. Between August 2011 and January of last year, about 130,000 people - including 89,000 children - were dropped from Medicaid rolls, leading some advocacy groups to cry foul. The number was so high that the Obama administration stepped in, seeking detailed information to determine whether anyone had been wrongfully struck from the rolls.

Separate from his policy decisions, the secretary also came under fire last year for hiring Robert W. Patterson, the editor of an ultraconservative faith-based journal, as a top aide. In his writings, Patterson had condemned birth control, working women, and some of the programs assisting the poor that the department was responsible for administering. And last December, Alexander faced criticism again, following a report from Harrisburg online news service PA Independent, that said he had been driving a state-owned car from Harrisburg to his home in Rhode Island dozens of times a year, raising questions about the costs to taxpayers and his presence in the state capital.

Reached for comment at the time, Alexander told The Inquirer: "My family lives in Rhode Island, I have two small children and a wife I love very much. I also pay for part of that vehicle. It comes out of my check and I've been allowed to use it to go back and forth."

Alexander would be the second cabinet official to leave the Corbett administration.

Last October, Health Secretary Eli N. Avila quit his $146,000-a-year post after less than two years in the job. Avila too had become a frequent topic of conversation around the Capitol - but for different reasons. Soon after arriving in Harrisburg, he got involved in a dispute with a local diner owner over the freshness of the egg in his egg sandwich.

After a heated exchange, during which the diner owner asked him to leave, Avila called city health inspectors on the popular restaurant. The diner owner later sued Avila, alleging the secretary, out of revenge following their fight, tried to block him from landing a lucrative state contract.

That suit is pending.

Inquirer staff writer Alfred Lubrano contributed to this article.