The Baltimore state's attorney is conducting a criminal and civil investigation into possible misuse of funds by officials for a highly touted federal program that aids poor pregnant women and their babies.
Dr. Peter Beilenson, city health commissioner, confirmed yesterday that his department in the last month discovered spending discrepancies in the $3.2 million-a-year Healthy Start program and turned over the information to the office of city State's Attorney Patricia C. Jessamy.
Details of the allegations were not provided.
The chief financial officer and executive director of Healthy Start Inc., the nonprofit agency that the city set up to administer the funds, have been removed, Beilenson said.
Beilenson, who has taken over as chairman of the agency, declined to release the names of the released employees.
Deputy Health Commissioner Elias A. Dorsey said last night that the head of the program, Thomas P. Coyle Jr., was on personal leave. Coyle could not be reached for comment at his home.
After taking over, Beilenson launched an audit covering four years of agency spending to determine the degree of what he called "fiscal irregularities." He said the audit would be complete early next year.
Word of the possible spending scandal -- which sources said could reach $650,000 -- shocked advocates of a program that has gained national recognition for reducing infant deaths and low birth weights in distressed neighborhoods.
"This is a very, very important program to me personally," Rep. Elijah E. Cummings, a Baltimore Democrat, said yesterday. "This is something I went to bat for, because it's for babies."
During the past five years, the number of babies born in Baltimore with low birth weights has declined by 65 percent. In addition, the city's infant mortality rates dropped 30 percent during the same period.
The program targets the distressed neighborhoods of Sandtown-Winchester and Harlem Park in West Baltimore. In addition to aiding pregnant women, the agency has helped 300 community advocates obtain jobs recruiting pregnant women who might get prenatal health care through the program.
The money also is used to train neighborhood people for jobs, help them earn high school equivalency diplomas, pay for medical care and provide day care for children of the program's clients.
This year, Cummings successfully fought Republican attempts to scale back the program and went to Vice President Al Gore to get the city's Healthy Start allocation increased from $2.5 million to $3.2 million. Cummings said he had heard rumors of fiscal problems in the program but did not know details.
Cummings expressed frustration over possible misuse of the funds. "We sweated every single penny," he said.
Beilenson likewise expressed dismay that the highly successful program might be tarnished by a spending scandal.
He said he was unaware of the problems because the agency operates separately from the Health Department. "The sad thing is that this is a good program," he said. "It tarnishes a great program."
Pub Date: 11/19/98