Report: Ex-Surgeon General Used Employees as Chauffeurs
"Washington Watchdogs," a periodic feature of the Post's Investigations blog, looks at the findings of the government's official investigators.
A former U.S. surgeon general who later served as New York's health commissioner ordered state employees to act as her personal chauffeurs on shopping trips and personal errands, a report released today by New York's inspector general shows.
Antonia Novello, who served as New York state's health commissioner from 1999 to 2006, required four state employees, including a Medicaid fraud investigator, to work 2,500 hours of overtime driving her, costing the state $48,000.
Novello, 64, served as the U.S. Surgeon General under former President George H.W. Bush from 1990 to 1993. She now is vice president of Women and Children Health and Policy Affairs at Disney Children's Hospital in Orlando.
The three employees told investigators that Novello frequently ordered state workers to drive her for shopping trips to Macy's, Saks Fifth Avenue and other high-end stores and to run personal errands. Drivers would pick up friends from airports in Albany, N.Y., and Newark, N.J.; deliver store purchases; move furniture; and bring in groceries, according to the nine-page inspector general's report.
The case, including potential felony charges, has been referred for prosecution to the Albany County, N.Y., district attorney.
Investigators say Health Department staffers repeatedly told Novello about the rule barring the use of employees as personal drivers, to no avail. At one point, Novello said she had received approval to use employees as drivers by Gov. George E. Pataki's office.
When one employee questioned the arrangement, he said he was told by his supervisors: "When she asks you to take her somewhere, take her."
A copy of the inspector general's report
Another driver, a security guard considered a personal favorite of Novello, also told investigators that the health commissioner told him to conceal his driving duties by spreading his overtime hours throughout the work week. He also parked state cars in "discreet locations" while waiting for Novello, to avoid being spotted.
"Other people knew," the driver said. "I mean it was no secret that she had me doing stuff that I really shouldn't...be doing," adding that Novello frequently "yelled" at him in public for not carrying shopping bags correctly.
The report said the driver finally refused to pick up Novello in January 2007, after she had left the agency. She had asked him to pick her up at the Newark airport after a trip from her native Puerto Rico.
At the time, Novello earned $136,000 per year in her New York post, plus an additional $60,000 per year as the board president for the not-for-profit Health Research Institute. She also had access to a state-owned vehicle.
Novello declined to be interviewed and has hired a defense attorney, E. Stewart Jones, who said that he didn't believe "anything she did was unjustified or unwarranted or calls for criminal prosecution."
"The inspector general's method of investigation and method of reporting leaves much to the imagination," Jones told The New York Times. "They aren't held to the same standard of proof that's required in a criminal investigation or a criminal trial. They tend to adopt hearsay as truth."
Novello was both the first woman and the first Hispanic to serve as surgeon general. She was widely praised upon her departure in 1993, with the Clinton administration noting her "vigor and talent."
By Derek Kravitz |
January 27, 2009; 1:00 PM ET
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