Pa. Health Secretary Avila responds to lawsuit by cafe owner

By Jon Campisi | Mar 5, 2012

In court papers filed Feb. 27, Pennsylvania’s top health official denies he ever escalated a situation involving a Harrisburg-area diner owner, an incident that the eatery founder claims eventually led to the cabinet-level official attempting to block a state contract deal.

Richard M. Hanna, owner of Roxy’s Café, filed a lawsuit Feb. 9 in the U.S. District Court in Harrisburg against Pennsylvania Health Secretary Eli N. Avila, accusing Avila of working to prevent Hanna from obtaining a state contract to operate a café at the capitol.

Hanna claims Avila conspired against him following an earlier incident in which Avila allegedly gave Hanna a hard time over a supposedly undercooked egg sandwich.

Some in the capitol referred to the minor scandal as “egg-gate,” local media has reported.

Earlier this week, Avila filed a response to Hanna’s lawsuit, court records show.

In his answer to the suit, Avila denies ever having received an egg sandwich, with the health secretary claiming he simply advised Hanna that it was unsafe to serve eggs prepared by placing pre-cooked eggs on a griddle alongside uncooked ones.

Hanna had claimed that Avila said, “Do you know who I am,” after receiving the sandwich.

Avila’s version of the events state that the health secretary never even got to the point of getting the sandwich, instead canceling his order before getting the meal and leaving the restaurant.

The response to the suit states that despite Hanna’s claim to the contrary, Avila never “disparaged” the plaintiff, and never announced who he was.

In his response, Avila admits that he contacted Harrisburg health officials, who have jurisdiction to inspect city restaurants for compliance with food safety regulations.

However, Avila denies that he did so in an attempt to seek retribution against Hanna, or prevent him from obtaining a state vendor contract to oversee food services at the café inside the state capitol building.

“It is denied that defendant Avila pursued a vendetta or had any reason for a vendetta,” the response states. “It is denied that defendant Avila made a ‘false complaint.’ Indeed, the City of Harrisburg determined that there were violations of food safety regulations at Roxy’s Café.”

Avila’s response to the suit also claims that despite Hanna’s assertion that the health secretary contacted officials with the Department of General Services in an attempt to prevent them from awarding the food services contract to Hanna, the department was never aware of any communication from Avila at any time before the awarding of the contract.

“Even though the contract was awarded to a bidder which had submitted a superior bid, plaintiff Richard Hanna contacted the Governor’s Office and asked the Governor’s Office to revoke the award of the contract and give it to plaintiffs as a result of his interaction with defendant Avila,” the response states. “Because the contracting process is established by law and the lawful procedure had been followed by everyone involved at the Department of General Services, the Governor’s Office declined plaintiff’s request to arbitrarily revoke the contract from the successful bidder and unilaterally award the contract to plaintiffs.”

Avila’s defense is being handled by the Pennsylvania Attorney General’s Office’s Civil Litigation Section.

His response to the lawsuit was signed by Attorney General Linda Kelly and two deputy attorneys general.

Hanna is being represented by Harrisburg lawyer Charles E. Schmidt, Jr. and Philadelphia attorney Gerald J. Williams.

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