Scandal compels Wilzack to resign state health job

February 05, 1991|By Eileen Canzian | Eileen Canzian,Sun Staff Correspondent

ANNAPOLIS -- State Health Secretary Adele A. Wilzack resigned yesterday, ending her struggle to remain in office despite the scandal surrounding the Maryland State Games program.

An aide delivered her letter of resignation to Gov. William Donald Schaefer about 1:15 p.m., less than an hour before Ms. Wilzack had been scheduled to appear before legislators to discuss her department's budget request for next year.

Legislative leaders had been pressuring Ms. Wilzack to step down, and they had warned the administration they would attempt to force her ouster if she didn't leave voluntarily.

But Governor Schaefer expressed surprise at Ms. Wilzack's decision and said he would accept her resignation with regret.

"She really is fundamentally a very decent woman," Mr. Schaefer said, blaming problems in the State Games program on "employees who let her down." He said he had no idea whom he would appoint to replace her.

Ms. Wilzack offered to stay on until a successor is chosen, and it was not clear yesterday just when she would actually leave office. A House subcommittee's hearing on the health department's budget was held yesterday without her, although the panel postponed discussion of some issues pending selection of Ms. Wilzack's replacement.

Ms. Wilzack's announcement yesterday followed nearly two months of revelations about financial impropriety, cronyism and other problems in her department's State Games program, supported largely with funds designated for the fight against drug use. The program -- abolished earlier this year -- remains the subject of a criminal investigation by the state attorney general's office.

The State Games program was supposed to promote amateur athletics as a means of dissuading young people from using drugs. It was responsible for running an annual amateur athletics competition of the same name and, in the past year, for leading the state's failed attempt to bring an Olympic Festival to Maryland.

But legislative auditors found that James E. Narron, the now-dismissed State Games director, was instead using government money to rent Ocean City condominiums, write checks to himself and set up a fencing academy that hired his wife.

The State Games staff even used federal drug abuse money to hire the band for a party thrown by the governor, program records showed.

Ms. Wilzack has said repeatedly that she didn't know about the abuses. She told legislators a year ago that her State Games staff was running "Midnight Basketball" leagues that were luring youngsters off drug-infested streets, although she recently admitted that such programs did not exist.

Legislators have said they believe Ms. Wilzack was misled by her staff -- specifically, by Mr. Narron and by her former top deputy, John M. Staubitz -- but they argued that her ignorance showed poor management.

They also faulted her priorities for allowing the State Games office to expand at a time when she was ordering sharp cuts in other health department 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's and a son of Deputy Health Secretary Nelson J. Sabatini were among those given jobs.

And although other health department offices were told to curb out-of-state travel, State Games workers were allowed to fly to San Francisco, Las Vegas, Phoenix, Miami and Dortmund, Germany, ostensibly to develop athletic programs in Maryland. Ms. Wilzack signed the documents approving some of those trips.

In all, health department records showed that Ms. Wilzack's agency spent at least $1.2 million on the State Games program over the past two years, although it had sought legislative approval for less than a quarter of that amount.

Ms. Wilzack appeared ready to fight for her job as recently as last Thursday, when she dismissed five former State Games workers she originally had planned to keep on staff until July. In a statement released yesterday, she suggested she was leaving because of legislative pressure.

Her continued presence as health secretary "apparently is distracting the legislature's attention from the important health care issues at hand," Ms. Wilzack said. "For whatever reason, it appears that the activities of my subordinates . . . now interfere with my ability to serve."

Legislative leaders seemed relieved that Ms. Wilzack had agreed to step down, a move they hoped would minimize public anger about the scandal.

"When people read about condos being rented and trips all over the world and blatant nepotism, it's difficult to go to them and say we need more of their money for state government," said Delegate Howard "Pete" Rawlings, D-Baltimore, vice chairman of the House Appropriations Committee.

But while applauding Ms. Wilzack's decision, Mr. Rawlings and others expressed sadness that Ms. Wilzack's eight-year tenure as health secretary was ending so ingloriously.

"A career that has been marked by very effective public service has been marred by this tragedy," Mr. Rawlings said.

Ms. Wilzack, 54, was appointed health secretary in 1983 by then-Gov. Harry R. Hughes and was among several Cabinet members kept on by Governor Schaefer.

At hearings last week, Ms. Wilzack told legislators she was proud of her accomplishments in office, including establishment of the state's AIDS administration and regulations requiring proficiency testing for laboratory workers who analyze pap smear tests.

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