State Games program disbanded by Wilzack

January 05, 1991|By Eileen Canzian

State Health Secretary Adele A. Wilzack said yesterday that she has disbanded the scandal-ridden Maryland State Games program, saying that in less than six months it has spent its budget for an entire fiscal year and run up a deficit of nearly $50,000 beyond that.

Ms. Wilzack, refusing to speak directly with reporters, made the announcement in a statement issued by a spokesman. Health department spokesman Richard Proctor declined to say how the State Games staff had

spent its budget of $310,000 so quickly, or to elaborate on Ms. Wilzack's decision to close the program.

"They have exceeded their budget. That alone is reason enough to cease operation," Mr. Proctor said. He said the program's employees will be reassigned.

The State Games program -- which is the focus of a criminal investigation by the Maryland attorney general's office -- was set up by Ms. Wilzack in 1987 to promote amateur athletic activities, ostensibly as a means of dissuading young people from taking drugs. The program was charged with running an annual sports competition called the Maryland State Games and, more recently, with leading Maryland's bid to a host the U.S. Olympic Festival.

State officials said yesterday that the future of both activities is now in doubt.

A spokesman for Gov. William Donald Schaefer said that if the state continues to hold the State Games and remains in competition for the Olympic Festival, those projects probably will be taken over by the state's Department of Economic and Employment Development.

But DEED officials said last night that they have not decided whether to proceed with either effort.

The Olympic Festival is a competition for the country's top amateur athletes that is held by the U.S. Olympic Committee in years that the full Olympics are not held. Maryland is among five finalists vying to host the festival in 1993, 1994 or 1995. Maryland officials have said that winning the festival would bring millions of dollars to the state. The USOC is expected to announce the three winners next month.

To proceed with the bid, however, DEED officials must decide if they can carry out a proposal designed by an office that no longer exists. The State Games director, James E. Narron, and his supervisor, Deputy Health Secretary John Staubitz, were dismissed by Ms. Wilzack last month amid allegations of financial impropriety in the State Games program.

Marilyn Corbett, a DEED spokeswoman, said last night that her agency was still evaluating whether Maryland should remain in competition for the Olympic Festival.

Ms. Corbett also said that the future of the Maryland State Games competition "was very much up in the air at this point."

The competition, held every summer for the past five years, drew more than 2,000 amateur athletes from across the state. It was sched

uled to be held next July at Frostburg State University.

Mr. Narron helped launch the State Games in 1985 as a volunteer and was hired by Ms. Wilzack's department in 1987 to run them as a state employee. The department awarded more than $400,000 in state grants to a private foundation -- also headed by Mr. Narron -- that he had set up to raise money for the event, even though the department had a state office for that purpose.

Legislative auditors recently concluded that Mr. Narron used some of that money 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.

The Sun recently reported that in addition to the foundation's spending, top health department officials approved state-financed trips to Las Vegas, Phoenix, San Francisco and Miami to support the State Games program -- though some of the travelers had no apparent connection to the program.

Mr. Proctor, the health department spokesman, left open the possibility that the department would launch a new amateur athletics program after July 1, when the new fiscal year begins, but suggested it was more likely such an office would be housed in DEED.

Despite a health department hiring freeze, the State Games office grew last year to a staff of more than a dozen. Besides Mr. Narron, the office had four permanent employees, who now will be assigned to other health department duties, Mr. Proctor said. He said the contracts of seven temporary workers were canceled last month.

State officials have said that one of the permanent employees was hired because of prior experience with the Olympic Festival and that another, charged with trying to bring a surfing competition to Ocean City, was hired for his knowledge of surfing. But Mr. Proctor said it is expected that positions will be found for the two elsewhere in the health department. "They do have other qualifications," he said.

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