ANNAPOLIS -- Health Secretary Nelson J. Sabatini, saying he is attempting to thin a top-heavy bureaucracy, confirmed yesterday that he has fired seven midlevel managers hired by former Secretary Adele A. Wilzack and her dismissed deputy secretary for operations, John Staubitz.
At least three of the seven had done work for the discredited Maryland State Games program, which operated under Mr. Staubitz's auspices and is the subject of criminal investigations by the state attorney general and the U.S. district attorney.
But Mr. Sabatini insisted yesterday that the State Games connection was not his motivation. Rather, he said, the seven -- who earned salaries ranging from $36,699 to $52,744 a year -- were doing work others could do or that the state could do without.
"I believe they were performing functions they were hired to perform," he said. "The question is the importance or relevance" of what they did.
"These aren't bad people," Mr. Sabatini said. "They aren't people who were problems. . . . They didn't do anything wrong. They were just occupying positions we could do without."
Mr. Sabatini said that when he took over the Department of Health and Mental Hygiene in February -- after the State Games scandal forced Ms. Wilzack to resign -- he discovered the department faced "serious financial problems."
It was top-heavy with management and short on the lower-paid employees who provide direct care in state-run hospitals and other health-care institutions, he said. It, like other state agencies, also was forced repeatedly to cut spending wherever possible to help the state erase several large budget deficits brought on by the recession.
The firing of the seven employees in late July and early August represents the beginning of a review of all high-salaried administrative positions in the department and could result in additional firings, Mr. Sabatini said.
"To the extent I can free up resources to provide direct care and services to people, especially people who are vulnerable or fragile, that's what I'm going to do," he said.
Three of those fired, Anne L. Stringer, Arthur J. McColgan and John P. Leatherbury III, had done work for the Maryland State Games program, which was established to promote an annual athletic contest of the same name but which collapsed amid allegations of cronyism and financial impropriety by those who ran it.
Before leaving office, Ms. Wilzack dismissed Mr. Staubitz and State Games director James E. Narron after legislative auditors determined that Mr. Narron used state and federal grants to finance a trip to Germany, rent Ocean City condominiums, write checks to himself and set up a fencing academy that immediately hired his wife.
Health department records show that Ms. Stringer owned an Ocean City condominium rented by the State Games program. Sources within the administration of Gov. William Donald Schaefer said Mr. McColgan spent a summer in the condominium while selling fluorescent light sticks to benefit the State Games program. Neither Ms. Stringer nor Mr. McColgan could be reached yesterday for comment.
Ms. Stringer, Mr. McColgan and Mr. Leatherbury also were identified in health department records as among those who traveled at state expense on various State Games trips.
Mr. McColgan, hired to investigate whether other health department employees were abusing sick leave or other authorized leave, went to Dortmund, Germany, in March and April 1989 to view a table tennis tournament.
Mr. Leatherbury, a "program administrator" under Mr. Staubitz who was described by Mr. Sabatini as "a kind of an overall general assistant," traveled to San Francisco and Oakland in September 1989 in connection with the Maryland program. And Ms. Stringer, hired to be a health department "ombudsman" in Southern Maryland, was sent to Phoenix in February 1990 as part of a State Games effort to lure a U.S. Olympic festival to Maryland.
Also fired was Mary Eckert, a special assistant to Mr. Staubitz who, at an annual salary of $52,744, was the highest paid among the seven. She coordinated legislation and regulations for the department, Mr. Sabatini said.
Others included G. Lynn Lackey, a liaison on health issues with the governor's office; Lydia Pizarro, a member of a governmental relations staff so large that Mr. Sabatini said legislators ordered him to cut it; and Barbara Spence, a special assistant to Ms. Wilzack.