Roberta Novello – My Old Nemesis Back in the News

The last time I wrote about Roberta Novello, she was doing a prohibitionist ax-swinging routine against a company that made Crazy Horse Malt Liquor.   I am a fan neither of malt liquor nor Crazy Horse, but Novelli’s heavy-handed demagoguery was too much to bear.  Posted below is an article I did for the Wall Street Journal editorial page on the case. 

Novello was a hot product in the George H.W. Bush administration because she was the first Hispanic to be named Surgeon General.  I suspect there were lots of people damn glad she wasn’t their personal surgeon.  Her Crazy Horse antics were perhaps her clearest legacy.  I concluded the 1992 piece: “She should find something better to do with her time than spurring the creation of black markets for pretty beer bottles.”

Novello was appointed as New York State health commissioner by Gov. George Pataki in 1999.  She reigned for 7 years before maxing out all of her shopping credit cards.  The New York Inspector General is recommending consideration of charging her with fraud for abusing her office and power. 

The New York Times reports today that the IG’s report

 depicts Dr. Novello as preoccupied with shopping and routinely abusive of her authority over employees, ordering them to buy her groceries, pick up her dry cleaning and even water her houseplants.

On one occasion, Dr. Novello purchased a heavy statue of Buddha during a shopping excursion in Troy, N.Y., then required a Health Department security guard to move it into her apartment, and then a few days later move it to another spot in her home because she didn’t like how it looked…

Dr. Novello also ordered a Medicaid fraud investigator in her department to drive her on trips to Macy’s and Saks Fifth Avenue in Manhattan. On numerous occasions she had state workers drive her or her mother from the Albany area to Newark Liberty International Airport, roughly 300 miles round trip, to fly to Puerto Rico for personal business.

If Novello had done something as innocuous as make torture policy or carry out interrogations in which foreigners died, she would have few or any legal worries.   But that Saks Fifth Avenue/Puerto Rico airport chauffeur service is going to get the tabloids in a rage.

Here’s the piece on Crazy Horse –
                    The Wall Street Journal
                           Tuesday, September 15, 1992
               The Second Murder of Crazy Horse
                        By James Bovard

One hundred and 15 years after a U.S. cavalry soldier murdered
Crazy Horse in a jail cell, federal officials are once again
persecuting Crazy Horse. This time, instead of a defenseless Indian
chief, the target is a small Brooklyn brewing company that had the
audacity to use a newly politically incorrect name for its beverage.
The resulting political feeding frenzy may result in the first
crucifixion of an American corporation for the sin of “commercial

In March 1992, Hornell Brewing Co. introduced Crazy Horse Malt
Liquor, which is proving to be a big success. Hornell brought out
Crazy Horse as part of a new series of Wild West-type drinks
scheduled to include Jim Bowie Pilsner and Annie Oakley Lite. The
federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms formally approved
the name and label for 40-ounce bottles of the new malt liquor.

But Surgeon General Antonia Novello went on the warpath when she
heard about Crazy Horse. Dr. Novello flew to Rapid City, S.D. —
near the largest Sioux Indian reservation — held a press conference
and denounced Hornell for “insensitive and malicious marketing.” Dr.
Novello claimed that the new drink “may appeal to drinkers who want
to go ‘crazy,”‘ and concluded: “I look to the leaders of the Indian
Nations to help me mount a campaign to stop this exploitation, to
use public outrage to force Crazy Horse off the market.” A few weeks
later, she told a congressional committee: “Let them know that proud
Indian Nations will not be brought to their knees,” and appealed for
more public denunciations of the brewers.

Many congressmen have jumped on Dr. Novello’s anti-beer
bandwagon. Rep. Ben Nighthorse Campbell (D., Colo.) declared that
the sale of Crazy Horse malt liquor is part of an “absolute American
tragedy.” Rep. David Obey (D., Wis.) said that the company that
brews Crazy Horse should be put out of business. Rep. Joseph Kennedy
(D., Mass.), whose inherited wealth stemmed largely from his
grandfather’s bootleg racket, wailed that brewers “don’t care what
the effect is on the American Indian people . . . as long as they
can make money.”

On June 5, Rep. Frank Wolf (R., Va.) proposed an amendment to a
House appropriations bill to prohibit any company from naming any
alcoholic beverage after any renowned dead person. (Mr. Wolf’s
amendment mortified Boston Beer Co., since it would have outlawed
Samuel Adams beer.) On July 1, the House passed a narrower Wolf
amendment (after Mr. Wolf during floor debate deemed Hornell
“despicable”) that banned the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and
Firearms from approving any additional labels featuring Crazy Horse.

On July 30, the Senate Appropriations Committee effectively
ordered Hornell to negotiate with the Oglala Sioux Indian tribe to
satisfy the Indians’ complaints. But the negotiations have been
derailed largely because the Indians have made sweeping demands for
federal bans on the use of any Indian name on alcoholic products or
“other products which are harmful to physical or mental health.”

On Sept. 10, the Senate adopted an amendment by Sen. Tom Daschle
(D., S.D.) to revoke Hornell’s federal license to sell Crazy Horse.
The House and Senate conferees on the appropriations bill could
settle Hornell’s fate this week. The company is owned by John
Ferolito and Don Vultaggio, two former New York beer truck drivers.
Spokesman Mark Rodman notes that the company has invested more than
$1 million in packaging, labeling, and trademark development and
marketing efforts, and that the controversy has cost the company
more than $100,000. Banning Crazy Horse could easily bankrupt the
company and destroy scores of jobs.

This brouhaha over Crazy Horse is peculiar. There are already
dozens of alcoholic beverages named after Indians and Indian tribes,
such as Thunderbird wine, Black Hawk Stout, and Chief OshKosh Red
Lager. Crazy Horse’s name has been used for tobacco products, strip
joints and saloons.

Critics allege that Crazy Horse malt liquor’s name will somehow
spark increased drinking; Dr. Novello declared that Hornell’s
“marketing strategy is guaranteed to decrease the health status of
Native Americans.” But Hornell is not selling Crazy Horse in 14
states with high populations of Native Americans. Also, a 1985
Federal Trade Commission study concluded that there was “no reliable
basis on which to conclude that alcohol advertising significantly
affects alcohol abuse.”

The surgeon general’s efforts have hit pay dirt — at least in
South Dakota. The Associated Press reported last week that bottles
of Crazy Horse have become all the rage in Rapid City. (Hornell is
not licensed to sell Crazy Horse in South Dakota and the bottles are
being smuggled in from other states.) People are paying up to $14 —
more than five times the retail price elsewhere — for the empty
bottles with their novel painted labels. Dr. Novello sees this as a
result of the nefariousness of American alcohol producers: “It
really shows that once the industry gets committed to do something,
they will always find a way to do it.”

It is especially hypocritical for congressmen to denounce malt
liquor labels for corrupting the public since Congress itself
censors all beer and malt liquor labels by prohibiting breweries
from listing their alcohol content. (Wine and hard liquors are
compelled by federal law to state their alcohol content on their

In 1989, the counsel for the House filed a court brief that
declared that Uncle Sam must continue suppressing beer’s alcohol
content to “shield the public . . . from unhealthy blandishments to
select beers on the basis of their efficacy as intoxicants.” The
House’s position is incredibly demeaning to average citizens. It
makes no sense to pick out the beverage with the lowest alcohol
content and assume that people will go on drinking binges unless
Congress effectively blindfolds them.

The surgeon general is using the attack on Crazy Horse to
spearhead new controls on alcoholic beverages, declaring: “The
Indians are only the beginning of the minority populations” to be
helped by a more restrictive alcohol labeling. When asked whether
her proposed ban would violate brewers’ freedom of speech, Dr.
Novello replied: “If this goes to any high court, it would be very
contended (sic) whose rights are more violated.”

We should not allow politicians and bureaucrats to lynch any
private company whose product name offends them. The surgeon
general’s pronouncements indicate that she may not be satisfied with
any new alcoholic beverage unless it is named Brain Rot, Baby
Killer, or Liver Lambaster. She should find something better to do
with her time than spurring the creation of black markets for pretty
beer bottles.





2 Responses to Roberta Novello – My Old Nemesis Back in the News

  1. Dirk W. Sabin January 29, 2009 at 2:27 pm #

    I always enjoy the spectacle of one of the Bwanas of Great White Fatherland dropping in on the Rosebud Reservation to get some face time on the networks at the expense of two goombas in Brooklyn who called their boutique brew “Crazy Horse”.

    There is nothing like the Sense of Entitlement enjoyed by the denizens of our Beloved Political Class. Their use of Dramatic Hyperbole…. ….”Generation at risk”….(eh…what generation in this war-mad culture aint at risk?) is but one of many reasons behind the general deflation in credible literacy.
    I really liked the comment from one of the Dr. Novello’s terrorized underlings when she demanded that he drive her somewhere even after she no longer served “at the pleasure of the public…..a charming conceit. The guy told her what the public should have long ago: “Buzz Off”.

  2. Jim January 29, 2009 at 2:39 pm #

    The Novello prosecution could hurt the economic recovery in New York, since it could deter all other political appointees from using their staff as shopping slaves.