Former Deputy Health Secretary John M. Staubitz Jr. unexpectedly pleaded guilty yesterday as prosecutors were preparing to begin a five-week trial stemming from his role in the Maryland State Games scandal.
Staubitz, charged with conspiracy to commit misconduct in office, called his lawyer at 8:30 a.m. to say he had changed his mind about going through with the trial, which had been scheduled to start an hour later in Baltimore Circuit Court.
The defendant entered what is known as an Alford plea. While legally the same as a guilty plea, it allows Staubitz to continue to assert his innocence while acknowledging that the state had enough evidence to convict him.
That evidence included anticipated testimony that during a government-financed trip to Las Vegas in 1989, Staubitz gambled and played golf and "did not conduct any state business whatsoever," Assistant Attorney General Carolyn H. Henneman told the court yesterday in a statement of facts.
Staubitz also used $2,000 in state drug-abuse-prevention funds to finance gambling during a 1990 trip to Miami, Ms. Henneman said, and used state money to give his mother a weekend vacation in Western Maryland.
"I dispute almost everything that was said," Staubitz told reporters after his plea was accepted by Judge Andre M. Davis. Staubitz said he decided to forgo trial after he said two bullets were fired from the woods near his Catonsville home Tuesday morning, breaking the windows of his Chevrolet Cavalier parked in the driveway. He said he did not see who fired them.
"It was an attempt on my life," Staubitz continued. "It led me to believe that someone did not want me to testify . . . because of what I know about the underpinnings of state government and who all is involved in a lot of this." He did not elaborate.
Baltimore County police, who investigated Staubitz's report of a shooting, said yesterday that damage to the car was consistent with his account. Police said they could not be certain shots were fired, however, because no bullets were found.
Staubitz, 43, is scheduled to be sentenced July 27.
As deputy health secretary, Staubitz was second-in-command of Maryland's $2-billion-a-year health department when legislative auditors in 1990 first revealed improprieties in the State Games, a relatively small program supervised by Staubitz.
The State Games program was established by then-Health Secretary Adele A. Wilzack to promote amateur athletics, ostensibly as a means of discouraging young people from using drugs. The program's staff ran an annual amateur athletics competition of the same name, which continues in a scaled-down form, and headed the state's attempt to bring various U.S. Olympic activities to Maryland.
But the program was financed in a way that offered virtually no checks on the way its government money was spent. The program was given nearly $500,000 in drug-abuse-prevention grants deposited in the bank account of a private foundation, controlled by State Games Director James E. Narron. Narron was the only person who could write checks on the foundation's account, and Staubitz was the lone state official charged with supervising that spending.
Narron pleaded guilty to conspiracy Tuesday and is scheduled to be sentenced July 28.
Beyond the drug-abuse grants, health officials have acknowledged that the State Games program also was able to spend hundreds of thousands of dollars in additional state funds that Staubitz controlled as deputy secretary. Former Secretary Wilzack, who resigned under pressure from legislators in February 1991 as details of the scandal emerged, said that she trusted Staubitz and that she did not always review his operations.
That freedom, prosecutors say, allowed Staubitz and Narron to use government money for inappropriate expenditures both small and large.
More than $12,000 in State Games money was used to purchase a corporate membership at the Turf Valley Country Club, according to court documents. Staubitz, Narron, a third health department official and two friends were listed as members.
Another $4,500 paid for the band at a party for the governor's staff, an expenditure the documents say was authorized by Staubitz. Some $3,000 in State Games money also financed tuition for a niece of Staubitz's.
In addition, Staubitz and Narron both were accused of setting up a company to buy sweat suits and other goods, then sell them to their State Games program -- at a profit and without competitive bidding -- while concealing their roles in the firm.
Staubitz also was accused of drafting a fake letter from Harvey Schiller, then head of the U.S. Olympic Committee, endorsing the State Games program "as a model for the development of health and fitness."
Mr. Schiller was among more than 100 witnesses who had been scheduled to testify at Staubitz's trial. Subpoenas also had been sent to high-ranking health officials, aides to Gov. William Donald Schaefer, and state legislators.