Wilzack Resigns

February 06, 1991

State health secretary Adele A. Wilzack did the wise thing in tendering her resignation. As we stated on Jan. 15, the longer she stayed, the deeper the embarrassment -- and the political difficulties -- for Gov. William Donald Schaefer. Her failure to spot large-scale misdeeds in the now-disbanded Maryland State Games program made her exit all but inevitable.

Ms. Wilzack was misled and undermined by key staffers she trusted. The net result: financial impropriety, cronyism, deception and mismanagement. She lost all control over the State Games program for amateur athletes, permitting the squandering of $1.2 million in taxpayer funds -- including federal drug abuse money that wound up paying for a band to entertain Governor Schaefer's executive staff at a private party.

None of this should have happened. The health department had no business venturing into amateur athletics. It was a con game from the start, but Ms. Wilzack never noticed. Instead, she supported the program wholeheartedly, even when some activities she was defending never existed.

Though Ms. Wilzack fired the State Games director and her top deputy once the scandal broke, the health secretary still had to take responsibility for this black mark on the Schaefer administration. More embarrassing disclosures could yet emerge once the attorney general's office finishes its criminal investigation.

This was the only scandal to mar Ms. Wilzack's eight-year tenure as health secretary. It is unfortunate that she has to end her state government career this way. She was a staunch advocate for the poor, the mentally ill and those in need of medical help. The rigors of running a $2.5 billion department with 11,000 employees forced her to rely too heavily on her top assistants. That turned out to be a mistake.

Ms. Wilzack was also the victim of the administration's fetish for high-visibility promotions, such as the State Games. She fell into the trap of shifting departmental priorities to please the governor. Last year's initiative was "the Year of the Child." This year's thrust -- preventive health care. The department's objectives never stay focused long enough on one goal to get the job done.

Governor Schaefer should act quickly to name a replacement as health secretary. The department is bereft of top leadership -- in addition to Ms. Wilzack, two of the three deputy posts are vacant. With the legislature already holding public hearings on agency budgets, it is imperative that this major department be fully represented in Annapolis. Otherwise, budget-cutters could have a field day picking health programs apart.

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