Games were a good idea gone awry, Wilzack says

December 23, 1990|By Patricia Meisol Eileen Canzian of The Sun's metropolitan staff and Bill Glauber of The Sun's sports staff contributed to this article.

Adele A. Wilzack had worn the T-shirts saying "Maryland State Games" and pushed the games on television.

She'd seen the enthusiasm of children playing table tennis at Baltimore schools in government-sponsored programs.

And she'd been convinced by her aides that amateur athletics was a way to prevent drug abuse by youngsters.

The way the state's health secretary sees it now, it was a good idea that went awry. And when she fired the aides who are now accused of misusing state funds, she wept.

"It is very distressing. I am sorry," she said in an interview Friday night at her Baltimore office.

Overnight, James E. Narron, the $53,000-a-year health department official who directed the Maryland State Games program -- and who headed a private foundation affiliated with them -- went from the boy wonder of the department to its biggest embarrassment. Among other things, he is accused of using the foundation to pay for condo rentals, country club perks and college tuition for state employees.

He said he acted with the complete approval of Ms. Wilzack. She disagrees.

By the time legislative auditors started looking into the games program in September, it had become a runaway branch of state government, governed by a private, non-profit foundation that spent hundreds of thousands of dollars in state and federal money outside the public eye.

Under Mr. Narron's leadership, the Maryland State Games -- a program charged with promoting athletic events including an annual amateur athletic competition under that name -- gave business to friends, financed a trip to Germany and bought $30,000 worth of sweat shirts so he could open a retail store.

But the program was unable to run profitable events, and it spent beyond its means. Using letters signed by top state health department officials as guarantees, the foundation borrowed money from a bank. When a court stepped in last week, the group that had confidently promised it could earn $1 million to win a bid for the U.S. Olympics Festival turned out to have $187,196 in debts and only $1,400 to pay them.

Mr. Narron's immediate supervisor, John Staubitz, the department's deputy secretary for operations and a personal friend of Ms. Wilzack, was also fired.

Although top health department officials say organizing sporting events for young people was a realistic drug-prevention strategy -- in an interview late Friday, they even brought out a medical expert to speak of the advantages of sports for young people -- such programs were never mentioned in the governor's 116-page 1989 Drug and Alcohol Abuse Control Plan, written by a blue-ribbon panel of health officials and medical experts.

In Friday's interview, Ms. Wilzack could cite no other state that has turned to such novel drug-prevention techniques using federal money.

Instead, she stressed the monumental health problems facing the state -- drug abuse, infant mortality, the highest cancer rate in the nation -- and the need to experiment with new ideas, including changing people's lifestyles, to try to solve them. The state games and related sports events, she said, were "a different approach and seemed to make sense."

Unfortunately, she added, the management of the games did not.

In an arrangement approved by top health agency officials, the money was funneled through the Carroll County Health Department to the private, non-profit Maryland State Games Foundation Inc., run by Mr. Narron.

Use of a foundation meant Mr. Narron could break all the rules about how government agencies usually spend money -- rules designed to prevent abuses and to ensure that taxpayers get the best bargain for their money through bidding and other safeguards.

Operating from a building on the grounds of a state mental hospital in Sykesville, the Maryland State Games grew and grew. In less than two years, close to $1 million had passed though the foundation.

Some of it went to a corporate country club membership, to college tuition for a niece of a health department deputy secretary, and to create a fencing academy that immediately hired Mr. Narron's wife, legislative auditors say. There was also an "emergency check" for $1,200 made out to Mr. Narron's wife, and -- for some employees on the state payroll -- two rented condos in Ocean City.

And instead of marketing the State Games through traditional means, officials did it by buying and selling promotional sports items and sending Mr. Narron's brother-in-law to fairs and carnivals to put the word out.

The directors of the foundation, who have fiduciary responsibility over the money, never held a meeting. Besides Mr. Narron, who also was president of the foundation, the only director was Ellicott City planner Jack Boender. Mr. Boender said he had nothing to do with the foundation after Mr. Narron became a state employee in December 1987, taking the foundation's books with him.

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