State Games used funds aimed against drug abuse

December 19, 1990|By Patricia Meisoland Eileen Canzian

Hundreds of thousands of dollars to promote amateur athletics in Maryland -- including money intended to bring an Olympic Festival to Maryland -- came from government funds intended to combat drug and alcohol abuse, the dismissed director of the Maryland State Games said yesterday.

James E. Narron, who was fired last week amid allegations that he misused money as director of the Maryland State Games, said he acted with the full support of Adele A. Wilzack, the secretary of health and mental hygiene, and her deputies. He expressed amazement that his work, lauded by them for the past two years, now was being questioned.

"Now they are saying this is federal money; this is a grant," he said. Ifthe money came from a pot intended for another use, he said, "It is not my fault."

In documents filed in Circuit Court last week, health officials charged that the staff of the Maryland State Games misused more than $400,000 in state grants and that Mr. Narron repeatedly spent department money "for questionable, improper and potentially illegal" purposes. Yesterday, Ms. Wilzack issued a written statement that she was broadening her investigation ,, into the Maryland State Games and interviewing all employees connected with the program. The program was designed to encourage sports among young people as a means of improving their health.

But for second day in a row, she refused to answer questions from reporters. In addition to Ms. Wilzack's internal investigation, the state attorney general's office has confirmed it is conducting a criminal investigation into the program's finances.

Speaking for the first time since his discharge, Mr. Narron said in an interview that he used the money to promote the State Games, to bring a national pingpong championship to Baltimore, to present a $20,000 opening-night fireworks display for the State Games at Frostburg State University and to provide sports training programs in high schools, in addition to writing the application and sending the $25,000 fee that made Maryland one of five contenders for the Olympic activities.

He denied spending the funds on anything other than what his budget and marketing plan spelled out in detail.

He said he received about $500,000, most of it from drug- abuse prevention programs, with the enthusiastic endorsement of officials in charge of those programs.

Mr. Narron said he didn't know precisely where the money came from within the health department's Alcohol and Drug Abuse Administration, but he said it was given to him with no strings attached. "No one ever said, by the way, here's a pamphlet of what to do. . . . There was nothing hidden . . . nobody ever said, 'What does that have to do with prevention of drug abuse?' " Mr. Narron said.

Under Mr. Narron, the Maryland State Games grew from a small, all-volunteer private operation that raised $25,000 to $30,000 a year to a state-run program that depended almost exclusively on government money. He was both the state employee in charge of the State Games and the director of a private foundation that got state grants to run the games. As executive officer of the foundation, he had the sole power to write checks.

As the program grew, so did the names of personally or politically connected people hired on the state games payroll. They included Bryant M. McGuirk, son of former state Sen. Harry McGuirk, Michael C. Sabatini, son of Deputy Health Secretary Nelson J. Sabatini, and Christopher Hillman, Mr. Narron's

brother-in-law.

Mr. Narron defended his personnel practices, saying all the employees were qualified. He also said he didn't know what reports he should have filed in connection with his foundation, a tax-exempt private charity.

"That's where it is going to come out that I am overzealous," he predicted, saying he was not a "detail" person.

Jack Boender, an Ellicott city land planner who is listed as a director of the foundation, said yesterday he had not been involved with it since Mr. Narron was hired by the state and their private fund raising came to a virtual halt. He said a "couple of resolutions" were approved by the directors involving the purchase of some "inexpensive Chevys" and that in the past two years, the foundation borrowed money from an Ellicott City bank to carry it over until state grants arrived.

The foundation has debts it cannot cover, according to court papers filed by the attorney general's office last week in support of its successful request that a private company specializing in the recovery of assets take over the foundation.

A former Howard County official for the recreation department, Mr. Narron became active in the State Games as a private citizen. The success of his part-time sports promotion for the State Games in the early 1980s led to his hiring by the state agency, he said.

Once there, he said, he went to officials in charge of the alcohol and drug abuse administration directly for money and they "worked the mechanism."

The mechanism involved sending money through the Carroll County Health Department, which in turn passed it on to the state games, Health Department officials in that county said yesterday. They said such a "pass-through" situation from state to local programs was common.

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