No Wonder She Never Tackled the Shopaholism Epidemic


I always thought that Antonia Novello, the first President Bush's surgeon general, hated Joe Camel because she believed he encouraged teenagers to smoke. But maybe it was his T-shirt-heavy wardrobe that offended her. A report released yesterday by New York State Inspector General Joseph Fisch portrays Novello, who was the state's health commissioner from 1999 through 2006, as a fashionista who conscripted state employees to take her shopping at Macy's, Saks Fifth Avenue, and the Woodbury Common Premium Outlets. Fisch estimates that two security guards, a "confidential aide," and a fraud investigator (!) racked up $48,000 in overtime pay on hundreds of different occasions while chaffeuring Novello to her favorite stores and performing other personal errands for her, including grocery shopping, taking her mother to the airport, and watering the plants and rearranging the furniture in her apartment. In 2003, responding to complaints about Novello's inappropriate demands, Dennis Whalen, the department's deputy executive director, wrote her a memo:

When you are not in official travel status, and when you are not acting in your official capacity as the State Health Commissioner, avoid the use of the drivers or state staff.

Never under any circumstances request or direct that an employee perform a personal (non-state) service for you or conduct personal business on your behalf.

Novello took this message to heart, instructing her subordinates to do a better job of concealing the time they spent picking up her dry cleaning or holding her bags at Albany's Colonie Center Mall. Evidently Novello, now a vice president at Disney Children's Hospital in Orlando, was dissatisfied with her $196,000 salary as health commissioner and thought she deserved a staff of personal servants. One of the security guards, Charles Williams, reported that

people routinely saw him at the shopping mall with Novello, who would verbally abuse him in public. She "always yelled" if she bought expensive items and he didn't carry or handle them correctly. "(S)he would embarrass you anywhere," he said.

Williams finally broke free at the very end of Novello's tenure:

Williams's final assignment was on December 25, 2006, when Novello ordered him to leave his home at 1 a.m. on Christmas morning to drive her to the Newark airport for a flight to Puerto Rico. When she returned in early January 2007, he refused to pick her up in Newark because she was no longer DOH Commissioner.

Fisch said Novello "shamelessly and blatantly exploited and abused her staff, adding a new dimension to the definition of 'arrogance' and 'chutzpah.' " He said she not only misappropriated state resources but lied on her taxes by dramatically understating her personal use of a state vehicle (which the IRS considers a form of compensation). Fisch has referred the matter to Albany District Attorney P. David Soares for possible prosecution; the charges could include defrauding the government and offering a false instrument for filing.

Novello declined to be interviewed for the report (PDF) and for the New York Times story about it. Asked whether Novello in fact abused her staff in the manner described by Fisch, her attorney told the Times, "That sounds highly unlikely and completely out of character. Saying it's so doesn't make it so."