Senators rebuke Wilzack on abuse by State Games Health secretary tongue-lashed for her 'total lack of oversight'

January 29, 1991|By Eileen Canzian | Eileen Canzian,Sun Staff Correspondent

ANNAPOLIS -- State Health Secretary Adele A. Wilzack got a verbal lashing yesterday from legislators who made clear they held her responsible for the financial abuses of her department's now defunct Maryland State Games program.

Members of the Senate Budget and Taxation Committee said they believed Ms. Wilzack's assertion that she didn't know state money was being used to rent Ocean City condominiums, finance trips to Germany and pay numerous other expenses that auditors have labeled improper.

But she should have known, they said.

"About a million dollars was absolutely frittered away by your department -- that's the bottom line," said state Sen. Julian L. Lapides, D-Baltimore, as Ms. Wilzack appeared before legislators for the first time to answer questions about the State Games scandal.

"There's been fraud, misrepresentation, nepotism and a total lack of oversight from your office," Mr. Lapides said.

Ms. Wilzack fired two top aides last month and disbanded the State Games office after legislative auditors challenged many of its expenditures. The program is the subject of a criminal investigation by the state attorney general's office.

Yesterday, Ms. Wilzack said she accepted responsibility for the program's abuses, though she repeated her view that having an amateur sports office in the Department of Health and Mental Hygiene was a good idea.

"I believed that the Maryland State Games offered a novel and effective means of redirecting the lifestyles of our youth and their families," Ms. Wilzack said. "We were committed to this unique prevention approach and were energized by its potential."

Ms. Wilzack began her testimony by reading a list of accomplishments she said she had achieved in her eight years as health secretary.

She pledged that the abuses of the State Games office would not be repeated -- though she said she still didn't understand how they happened.

"I don't know what went wrong, and I don't know if I ever will," she said.

Committee members, however, said the problems clearly stemmed from Ms. Wilzack's lack of supervision of the program. "You had an obligation to know what was going on," said Sen. Laurence Levitan, D-Montgomery, the committee chairman.

Sen. Charles H. Smelser, D-Carroll, noted that the committee had voted last year to eliminate the State Games budget as a frivolous expense -- and that the program survived in the House only after intense lobbying by Ms. Wilzack.

Mr. Smelser said that after almost losing the program, he would have expected Ms. Wilzack to monitor it carefully. "But you didn't do that, and that's what I find most serious about your involvement. . . .

"You let us down. You let yourself down. It's rather sad," he said.

Though some legislators have previously called on Ms. Wilzack to resign, no one made that suggestion yesterday. Gov. William Donald Schaefer has steadfastly defended Ms. Wilzack and has made clear he plans to keep her as a member of his Cabinet.

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