State aides approved games trips Promotion efforts ran into thousands

December 30, 1990|By Eileen Canzian

In the past two years, top officials of the Maryland healt department authorized thousands of dollars of state-financed travel to San Francisco, Las Vegas, Phoenix, Miami and even to a table tennis tournament in Dortmund, Germany, as part of a program to promote amateur athletics in Maryland.

Health department records show the agency paid for trips by at least 10 state employees working in the Maryland State Games program, which was charged with running an annual sports competition of the same name and with attempting to bring a U.S. Olympic Festival to Maryland.

But some of the travelers were state employees with no apparent connection to the State Games program.

For example, the department's director of financial planning took a four-day trip to Las Vegas to attend a symposium on amateur athletic competitions, the records show. Health officials said Friday they knew of no reason for him to attend such an event.

And an administrator in the department's personnel office took part in the 10-day trip to Germany to see the table tennis tournament, though health officials now cannot explain why.

In all, the records show the department has spent more than $20,000 on out-of-state travel in connection with the State Games program. Agency officials acknowledged that the records were incomplete and that the actual figure is higher. The department is still assembling records in an attempt to tally the full cost of the trips, officials said.

The travel expense records, reviewed last week in the Preston Street offices of the state Department of Health and Mental Hygiene, provide new evidence of the agency's zeal in promoting the State Games program, which is the subject of a criminal investigation by the state attorney general's office.

Since 1987, the health department has hired state employees to help run the program, headed until recently by director James E. Narron. At the same time, the department gave more than $400,000 in drug-abuse-prevention grants to a private foundation also headed by Mr. Narron -- which was involved in running the program.

Legislative auditors recently reported that Mr. Narron, in his capacity with the foundation, used the state grants for such questionable expenditures as renting Ocean City condominiums and sending three people, including his wife, to a fencing tournament in Utah. The auditors noted pointedly that Mr. Narron, as head of a private foundation, apparently was able to spend the money without scrutiny from the health department.

But the department records made available last week show that in addition to Mr. Narron's spending through the foundation, top agency officials were themselves approving other travel at health department expense for the State Games.

Health Secretary Adele A. Wilzack signed forms authorizing one of her top deputies, John Staubitz, to make four trips to Las Vegas and Phoenix to meet with officials who run amateur athletic competitions and to attend a meeting of the U.S. Olympic Committee. Mr. Staubitz spent part of his time on other health department business, but the trips primarily involved athletics, the records show.

Most of the rest of the travel was authorized by Mr. Staubitz, who was one of Ms. Wilzack's most trusted aides, while Mr. Narron approved out-of-state trips for three employees.

Both men were dismissed by Ms. Wilzack this month amid allegations of cronyism and financial impropriety in the State Games program.

The records show that Ms. Wilzack and Mr. Staubitz first authorized travel in connection with the State Games early in 1989, but the trips continued even as the health department began experiencing serious financial difficulties a year ago.

Ms. Wilzack ordered a hiring freeze for much of her department late last year amid evidence that applications for help from state medical assistance programs were outpacing the agency's limited resources. In the past year, the agency has cut funding for a number of programs, including maternity and child health clinics for the poor, in response to its budget crunch.

Despite that crunch, Ms. Wilzack on Friday defended the trips by Mr. Staubitz that she personally approved, saying she felt they could help Maryland with its bid to host the U.S. Olympic Festival in 1993, 1994 or 1995.

The festival, sponsored by the U.S. Olympic Committee, is designed to give the country's top amateur athletes a chance to compete in those years that the full Olympics aren't scheduled. State officials have said previously that the event could bring millions of dollars in revenues to Maryland.

"It was a judgment call on my part that we should continue to pursue our bid [for the festival] because of the revenues that it could bring to the state," Ms. Wilzack said.

She said, however, that she was not aware until recently of some of the other trips. She said, for instance, that she hadn't known that her director of financial planning had gone to Las Vegas for four days.

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