Wilzack touted Games program that didn't exist

January 27, 1991|By Eileen Canzian

Last February, state Health Secretary Adele A. Wilzack was summoned to Annapolis to justify a little-known program called the Maryland State Games. Legislators couldn't see why the health department was promoting amateur athletics, and they wanted to eliminate the program.

But Ms. Wilzack offered a persuasive defense.

She showed a House subcommittee television footage of an innovative "Midnight Basketball" league, which was drawing young men off drug-infested streets and into gymnasiums around Prince George's County. The health department's State Games office had launched similar programs in three other counties, Ms. Wilzack testified, and was working hard to organize more.

This was not true.

The State Games office never ran or funded a Midnight Basketball program, state health officials acknowledged last week.

In fact, though State Games Director James E. Narron briefly considered having the Lutheran minister who organized the Prince George's program set up others in Maryland, Mr. Narron rejected the idea more than two months before Ms. Wilzack's testimony, the minister said last week.

Ms. Wilzack, who has refused to speak directly with reporters, said through a spokesman that she did not intentionally mislead the panel. Ms. Wilzack either misunderstood what she was told by the State Games staff or else received inaccurate information from them, said her spokesman, Richard Proctor.

Ms. Wilzack's testimony about Midnight Basketball will be just one of the problems she faces when she appears before legislative committees tomorrow and Tuesday to discuss the State Games program, now well-known to legislators. Over the past six weeks, revelations of financial impropriety and other scandals have triggered a criminal investigation by the state attorney general's office and forced Ms. Wilzack to fire Mr. Narron and her top deputy, John M. Staubitz, and to terminate the program.

Legislative auditors have reported that Mr. Narron used state and federal grants to rent Ocean City condominiums, write checks to himself and set up a fencing academy that immediately hired his wife. The State Games office even used federal drug program money to hire the band for a party thrown by the governor, records show.

While Ms. Wilzack has said she didn't know of such abuses, she has acknowledged that she allowed the State Games office to expand at a time when she was ordering sharp cuts in other programs, including maternity and child health clinics for the poor.

As other health department programs struggled with a hiring freeze, the State Games office grew last year to a staff of more than a dozen people -- many of them with personal connections to top health officials. Mr. Narron's brother-in-law, two longtime friends of Mr. Staubitz and a son of Deputy Health Secretary Nelson J. Sabatini were among those given jobs.

Meanwhile, as doctors and nurses at Crownsville State Hospital were using their own money to pay for trips to out-of-state professional conferences, State Games workers were traveling at taxpayer expense to San Francisco, Las Vegas, Phoenix, Miami and even Dortmund, Germany, ostensibly to help develop athletic programs in Maryland. Some of the travelers were state employees withno apparent connection to the State Games program, health officials have admitted.

And as Mr. Narron was rejecting as too costly the $35,00start-up cost of six new Midnight Basketball leagues for Maryland youngsters, he was authorizing much larger expenditures, including more than $130,000 to bring an international ping-pong tournament to Baltimore.

Gov. William Donald Schaefer has stood behind Ms. Wilzack throughout those revelations, repeating last week that he remained confident in her ability to manage her department. But a key legislator added his voice to those who have suggested that she should resign.

"It's time that she step aside," said Sen. Laurence Levitan, a Montgomery County Democrat and chairman of the Senate Budget and Taxation Committee, where Ms. Wilzack will appear tomorrow.

Mr. Levitan said he believed that Ms. Wilzack didn't know about the excesses of her State Games office, "but nonetheless, it happened on her watch. There's a point where people lose faith in someone, and I think she has reached that point."

Delegate Howard P. Rawlings, a Baltimore Democrat anchairman of a House budget subcommittee that will hear from Ms. Wilzack Tuesday, stopped short of calling for her resignation but made clear he believes that some of his colleagues will.

"Adele has done a good job in the eight years that she's been there," he said. "But they cannot wipe out this very major mistake. This is a major, major management blunder."

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