Lessons of the State Games Scandal

June 13, 1992

Criminal misuse of public money is more than cops and robbers stuff. Putting someone in jail for it is not the end of dealing with scandal in government. There is always a larger issue: How and why did someone get away with stealing public money? Can the taxpayer be sure something like it won't happen again?

Those questions are particularly pertinent in the aftermath of the Maryland State Games scandal. This was no theft of petty cash by a clerk. A lot of money -- perhaps more than $1 million -- was either siphoned off for personal use or otherwise diverted to purposes not authorized by the legislature that appropriated it. And the swindlers were high-ranking state officials, one of them the deputy secretary of the state Department of Health and Mental Hygiene.

That money intended for drug prevention could be so easily diverted is a warning to public officials everywhere. The health department was on notice for years by legislative auditors that some of its management practices were shoddy. But the longtime health secretary, Adele A. Wilzak, paid no attention to critical audits. A more business-like operation might have sounded a warning before the auditors turned up evidence of theft. Handling public money demands internal controls, even for the people at the top. It may be boring to sign off on a lot of vouchers, but it's a great safety net.

Shortcuts designed to avoid red tape are often tempting, particularly in an administration whose guiding principle is "Do it now!" and which has a great affection for splashy promotions such as the state games. John M. Staubitz Jr., the former deputy health secretary who awaits sentencing in the scandal, diverted public money into a quasi-private foundation. Once in the foundation, the money was not subject to those tiresome bureaucratic regulations, nor to public scrutiny as to whether it was being used properly. Other public agencies, notably the state's colleges, use foundations as fund-raising devices outside the appropriation -- and control -- process. The Staubitz case should be a warning to them all.

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