Legislators urge penalty for Wilzack Schaefer defends secretary as 'decent, hard-working'

January 30, 1991|By William Thompson and Marina Sarris | William Thompson and Marina Sarris,Evening Sun Staff

Political pressure is mounting against state Health Secretary Adele A. Wilzack in Annapolis, where General Assembly leaders have sharply criticized her over abuses and mismanagement of the Maryland State Games.

The embattled Wilzack underwent a second day of grilling before lawmakers yesterday while Gov. William Donald Schaefer, who recently reappointed her as secretary, rushed to her defense, characterizing the former nurse as "the most decent, hard-working, caring, dedicated person I've ever known."

A House Appropriations subcommittee yesterday recommended that up to 25 percent of her $105,215 salary be withheld for her agency's failure to comply with state regulations governing fiscal and accounting procedures. That action was a way lawmakers could "express some outrage," said Del. Howard P. Rawlings, D-City, who chairs the subcommittee.

At issue is Wilzack's apparent lack of control over an amateur athletic program run by aides within the Department of Health and Mental Hygiene. Throughout the hearings, first before the Senate Budget and Taxation Committee and then yesterday before a House Appropriations subcommittee, Wilzack steadfastly claimed that she was ignorant of how the program was being run.

In contrast to the governor's vote of confidence, lawmakers have been less patient with the way Wilzack has managed her department.

Saying her statements to the committees this year amounted to "apparent contradictions and other numerous examples of gross mismanagement," Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller, D-Prince George's, said the legislative leaders may bring political pressure on the Schaefer administration to deal with the scandal.

Miller declined to give details of the strategy against Wilzack, but he said the legislature has "dozens of proposals, none of them which are pleasant.

Miller tied the alleged spending improprieties of the Maryland State Games with Schaefer's support of new tax measures likely to come before the General Assembly this year.

"How can members of either the House or the Senate vote [for new taxes] when a Cabinet member has squandered from $500,000 to $1 million?" he asked.

House Speaker R. Clayton Mitchell Jr., D-Eastern Shore, met with Wilzack for about an hour last night. Afterward, Mitchell said he was concerned about the program's mismanagement, but he would not go as far as to call for Wilzack's resignation.

"A resignation is a drastic step, but I will save judgment for a while," Mitchell said.

Schaefer said Wilzack's problems happened because she trusted her aides.

Since an audit disclosed problems with the Maryland State Games, a deputy secretary for operations and the games director have been fired.

The state attorney general's office is investigating the Maryland State Games program for possible criminal wrongdoing. In December, a legislative audit revealed that the program was riddled with financial improprieties.

"This is almost a textbook case of nepotism, mismanagement and a breakdown of the public trust," Rawlings said yesterday during a House health and environment subcommittee hearing.

Despite a recommendation to cut the games program last year, legislators decided to support it after Wilzack's strong defense of it. The subcommittee now finds itself "highly embarrassed," Rawlings told Wilzack during the hearing.

Wilzack, who said she is not particularly adept at fiscal matters, contended that trusted aides kept her in the dark about the program's mismanagement. She said she had hoped the Maryland State Games "would be a springboard for wellness in the state."

Afterward, Rawlings said Wilzack, as department head, should have known about the program's problems. Rawlings said, "She can't get away with saying, 'I'm a nurse. I'm a people person.' "

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