JUNE 29, 2009
A former presidential cabinet member has pleaded guilty to defrauding the government as New York’s health commissioner by forcing state workers to be her personal servants on taxpayer dime.
Following a 20-count grand jury indictment, Dr. Antonia Novello, George H.W. Bush’s Surgeon General from 1990 to 1993, pleaded guilty to a felony in order to avoid jail. Novello had been charged with four felonies for defrauding the government and 16 thefts of services counts while she served as New York’s high-profile health commissioner from 1999 to 2006.
Her violations were initially exposed in a New York Inspector General’s report that said she billed the state’s taxpayers nearly $50,000 in overtime compensation for Health Department employees to do personal jobs. Novello made her staff buy groceries, pick up dry cleaning, move furniture, water house plants and chauffer her and her friends around town, according to the report.
The investigation further revealed that Novello is somewhat of a “shopaholic” who routinely ordered security guards and Medicaid fraud investigators in her state agency to drive her on trips to upscale department stores and her favorite malls near the state capital. State workers also regularly drove Novello and her mother from Albany to a New Jersey airport—about 300 miles roundtrip—to fly to their native Puerto Rico for personal business.
The plea deal requires Novello, an executive at an Orlando Florida children’s hospital, to perform 250 hours of community service at an Albany health clinic, pay $22,500 in restitution and a $5,000 fine. She could have faced up to a dozen years in prison had she been convicted of all charges.
The disgraced former Surgeon General’s attorney actually justified her fraud by explaining that she treated those employees very well, “as though they were family.” The dirty business of politics caused Novello’s family-like employees to turn on her, according to the attorney.
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