The state health department was accused of "blatant mismanagement" yesterday as legislative leaders criticized its use of government funds intended to combat drugs and alcoholism for the promotion of amateur athletics and Olympic events and to hire relatives of state officials.
One legislator called the health department program "rampant with nepotism" and "totally irresponsible."
So far, the controversy over the department's operation of the Maryland State Games program has cost two top state health officials their jobs and prompted audits and a criminal investigation of the handling of hundreds of thousands of dollars in government funds.
Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr., D-Prince George's, said yesterday he did not even know of the existence of the games until he read about them in The Sun.
"I'm certain there is a need for Maryland State Games," he said, "but I think that it belongs on a volunteer basis, the way it started out, and I don't believe that there's any correlation whatsoever between the Maryland State Games and the Maryland Department of Health and Mental Hygiene.
"I think it's a tremendous abuse of funds, and I think there's obviously blatant mismanagement taking place within that department. I think we're going to have to wait for the audit to see who did what to whom for how long," Mr. Miller said.
The Maryland State Games program was run by James Narron, who directed its growth from a volunteer organization funded by donations to a government-funded program with more than a dozen employees -- many hired despite a stated job freeze in the health department.
Mr. Narron, who was fired last week, said he acted with the full support of Adele A. Wilzack, secretary of health, and her deputies as he used the money for such purposes as promoting the State Games -- an annual amateur competition held at Frostburg State University -- and trying to lure a U.S. Olympic Festival and international sports competitions to Maryland.
Delegate Howard P. Rawlings, D-Baltimore, chairman of a subcommittee that reviews the health department's budget, said legislators were "misled" by claims that the program was intended as a drug-prevention effort.
When General Assembly budget analysts recommended this year that the health department abolish the State Games office and use the money instead to address "the identified health service needs" of Marylanders, Secretary Wilzack told legislators in a written statement that activities promoting "fitness and health through sports" would help guide young people to "lifestyles without drugs."
"Committee members would not have supported it," Mr. Rawlings said, "had it not been presented as an intervention program for high-risk youth so that they would not get themselves involved in drugs. But this does not appear to have been that kind of program."
Delegate Rawlings said committee members were told the State Games office would support such things as playground basketball programs in inner-city neighborhoods to reach high-risk children.
"What they were doing raises questions about public accountability of taxpayers' dollars," he said. "They misled the General Assembly. They diverted much-needed drug and alcohol-abuse program money to this activity. It was rampant with nepotism. . . . It was just totally irresponsible, and it raises questions about the leadership at the department."
Among those hired for the State Games office in the past year were Michael C. Sabatini, the son of one of Ms. Wilzack's top deputies, Nelson J. Sabatini; and Bryant M. McGuirk, son of gubernatorial aide and former state Sen. Harry J. McGuirk.
Referring to cuts in programs for acquired immune deficiency syndrome and kidney dialysis patients and prenatal care for poor women as people were being hired for the State Games office, Mr. Rawlings asked, "How can we go to the public and cut programs because of this budget crunch and then tolerate this kind of misuse of taxpayer dollars? I think the governor needs to send a stronger message to his administrators."
Gov. William Donald Schaefer, meanwhile, has expressed support for Ms. Wilzack.
"As soon as Secretary Wilzack informed me of allegations of possible improprieties concerning the Maryland State Games Foundation, I immediately directed her to seek and take all appropriate actions," the governor said Wednesday.
"These included asking the attorney general to conduct a full and thorough investigation of all allegations as well as taking administrative actions within the department. I support Secretary Wilzack's actions and feel that any further comment at this time is inappropriate," the governor said.