Miller vows to probe health agency's role in athletics scandal

January 03, 1991|By John W. Frece | John W. Frece,Annapolis Bureau of The Sun

ANNAPOLIS -- The president of the Maryland Senate said yesterday that he will make sure that legislative committees thoroughly investigate the state health department's role in the State Games scandal and suggested it may be time for the department secretary to step aside.

Sen. Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr., D-Prince George's, said he was not calling for the resignation of longtime health secretary Adele A. Wilzack, saying that decision was up to Gov. William Donald Schaefer.

But he said "the thinking" among legislators is that "a new person with a new image could perhaps better serve that agency."

"The public is demanding answers, which have not been forthcoming, and there's a definite case of mismanagement," he said, referring to a legislative audit challenging as "questionable, extravagant and unsubstantiated" more than $400,000 in expenditures by the Maryland State Games Foundation.

The foundation, financed largely by the health department, was set up to promote an annual, amateur athletic competition called the Maryland State Games.

The audit concluded that the dismissed director of the Maryland State Games, James E. Narron, had used state grants to finance a trip to Germany, rent Ocean City condominiums, write checks to himself and set up a fencing academy that immediately hired his wife. Some of the money had been earmarked for drug- and alcohol-abuse treatment programs.

The audit also was sharply critical of Mr. Narron's superiors at the Department of Health and Mental Hygiene, particularly Deputy Health Secretary John Staubitz, who was dismissed last month at the same time as Mr. Narron.

A review by The Sun of health department travel records disclosed that top department officials, including Secretary Wilzack, authorized more than $20,000 in state-financed travel to promote the State Games. The trips took state employees -- some with no apparent connection to the State Games -- to San Francisco, Las Vegas, Phoenix, Miami and even to a table tennis tournament in Dortmund, Germany.

"I doubt quite frankly that the governor would reappoint Secretary Wilzack under the circumstances where in excess of $400,000 in taxpayers' dollars are being wasted," the Senate leader said.

But he added that, "If he chose to do so, then I'm certain the Senate would wish to make extensive inquiry into why memberships were required at the Turf Valley Country Club, why condominiums were rented in Ocean City, why overseas trips were taken by members of her department, why staff members went to Las Vegas and Miami, and why these moneys weren't put into alcohol and drug prevention rather than being spent for the personal enjoyment of her staff."

"These are questions that are imperative to be asked, and 10 times more imperative that they be answered forthrightly and honestly," he said.

Health department spokesman Michael Golden replied that, "Just as the Senate president is concerned, so is the secretary. She is asking the very same questions and is preparing responses to those questions for her presentation before the [legislature's] Joint [Budget and] Audit Committee."

Paul E. Schurick, the governor's press secretary, said Mr. Schaefer has already reappointed Secretary Wilzack, rejecting several weeks ago the letter of resignation that she and all other Cabinet secretaries were asked to submit as Mr. Schaefer's second term is set to begin. Ms. Wilzack was first appointed secretary in 1983 by then-Gov. Harry R. Hughes.

When the audit was released Dec. 21, Mr. Schaefer said: "My confidence in Adele is still as strong as ever. She is hard-working, dedicated . . . a people person."

Yesterday, Mr. Schurick added: "The governor supports the secretary's actions, and the secretary -- with the full support of the governor -- is moving ahead now with several new public health initiatives to improve the services of her department."

The governor was expected to brief legislative leaders today on plans to reorganize the mammoth health department. One proposal he advanced in September called for the administration of Medicaid to be made a separate department and for establishment of a bureau of communicable diseases.

Because she has been reappointed to the job she previously held, Ms. Wilzack apparently does not have to appear again before the Senate Executive Nominations Committee for confirmation, said Assistant Attorney General Robert Zarnoch.

But her department must defend its actions before the Joint Budget and Audit Committee, as well as before budget committees in both houses.

"People should not be prejudged," Senator Miller said. "But I do know that if a person this guilty of gross incompetence were in the private sector, where profit is the bottom line, then that person would not be rehired."

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