Former Surgeon General Antonia Novello pleaded innocent Tuesday to forcing state employees to work overtime to handle her personal chores when she was New York’s health commissioner.
Novello entered the plea in Albany County Court, where prosecutors unsealed a 20-count indictment that included a charge of defrauding the government, a felony. Novello could face up to 12 years in prison if convicted of all charges.
Novello, originally from Puerto Rico, was released after being ordered to surrender her passport to her lawyer, E. Stewart Jones.
Prosecutors said Novello used state workers to chauffeur her on shopping trips and rearrange heavy furniture at her apartment while she was New York’s top health official from 1999 to 2006.
She previously served as surgeon general under President George H.W. Bush, being named to the post in 1990 and serving until 1993.
The state inspector general said the 2,500 hours of overtime put in by the workers cost taxpayers about $48,000. Novello was paid $256,000 annually while she was health commissioner.
Novello didn’t comment after her arraignment, but Jones said the charges were politically motivated and should have been addressed in a lawsuit, not a criminal case.
“She is here because she has a bull’s-eye on her back,” he said. “Because politics is a contact sport. Because there are people who are vindictive and who wanted to get her ever since she left the state.”
Former Gov. George Pataki, a Republican, appointed Novello. The charges against her were filed after a report was released by Inspector General Joseph Fisch, who was appointed by Democratic Gov. David Paterson.
The investigation against Novello started in July 2007 under former Inspector General Kristine Hamann, an appointee of Democratic former Gov. Eliot Spitzer. David Soares, Albany County’s district attorney, is also a Democrat.
Other public servants and politicians have “done much worse” yet weren’t pursued as aggressively as Novello, Jones said.
New York has seen a number of scandals involving public officials in recent years, including the resignation of Spitzer, who stepped down in 2008 amid a federal prostitution investigation. Former Comptroller Alan Hevesi, also a Democrat, pleaded guilty in 2006 to using state workers as chauffeurs and companions for his wife.
Novello’s case has been compared to Hevesi’s because both were accused of misusing state resources.
“The facts speak for themselves,” Fisch said in response to allegations that the charges against Novello were politically motivated.
Soares said he will ask lawmakers to consider creating a new, tougher statute for state employees who misappropriate resources.
He noted that if a state employee physically steals an item — paper clips or a computer, for example — they could face more severe charges than Novello would for her 16 counts of theft of services, a misdemeanor.