Legislative auditors in Maryland have found that state health secretary Adele Wilzack and top officials kept more than $500,000 in unbudgeted accounts during the last 18 months, instead of returning the money to the state treasury.

The money was used in part to cover a deficit built up by a unit of the state's Department of Health and Mental Hygiene, which officials did not identify.

Auditors said that the department violated state rules by keeping the money and avoiding legislative scrutiny, and that the audit revealed "significant weaknesses" in the agency's management of its $2 billion annual budget.

William Groseclose, coordinator of health department audits, said the money came from refunds the agency received from grant recipients after audits revealed overpayments.

He said the money was used to pay other grant recipients whose costs were higher than anticipated, all with the approval of the state comptroller.

The audit examined records covering the 18 months that ended in July and was conducted at the same time that legislative auditors were uncovering similar problems in the management of the Maryland State Games, which also is under the control of the health department.

Many of the programs were overseen by the department's deputy secretary for operations, John M. Staubitz Jr., who was fired last month amid allegations about the State Games, which he also supervised.

The auditors accused the health department of violating state law by shifting $1.2 million from one account to several others, giving lawmakers an inaccurate sense of the costs of various programs.