ANNAPOLIS, JAN. 28 -- Maryland's health secretary tried today to distance herself from alleged wrongdoing in the Maryland State Games program, saying she paid little attention to the day-to-day details while acting as a "cheerleader" for the program.
"I'm not an operations person. I'm a nurse" by training, Adele Wilzack said during a state Senate hearing on the program.
"I do not know what happened here. I don't know what went wrong. I'm not sure I ever will," added Wilzack, who runs a department with a $2.4 billion budget.
Wilzack's appearance before the Senate Budget and Taxation Committee marked her first public defense of her role in supervising the now-defunct State Games, a program that is the subject of a grand jury investigation.
Wilzack said that as secretary for the Department of Health and Mental Hygiene, she was a cheerleader for the State Games because she viewed its Olympic-style sports festival as a way to promote good health. She said she did not follow the program's details closely, because she assumed "my intent . . . my values were being upheld. It appears that wasn't true."
Wilzack said she accepted "without reservation" a legislative auditor's report on a nonprofit foundation affiliated with the state project. The audit concluded that there was cronyism and more than $460,000 in questionable expenditures.
Wilzack said that as a result of the review, she alerted the Attorney General's Office and successfully sought court action to have an independent receiver examine the foundation's financial records. She also pointed out that she disbanded the State Games and dismissed the top two state officials who ran the program.
But Wilzack's actions have not quelled criticism from state legislators.
"You really had an obligation to know what was going on," Sen. Laurence Levitan (D-Montgomery) told Wilzack during today's hearing.
Levitan, who heads the committee, added that "I'm convinced you did not know what was going on, but the problem is you were used" by subordinates to promote the program as other, more essential services were being cut. He noted that it was Wilzack's lobbying last year that preserved funding for the State Games despite a Senate attempt to kill the program.
"Once she made it a sacred cow, it was her responsibility to know what was going on," Levitan said afterward. "I think she ought to resign."
Sen. Julian L. Lapides (D-Baltimore) was even more blunt. Noting that the State Games began as a successful volunteer effort, he told Wilzack that "you have taken a silk purse and turned it into a sow's ear."
"This is really a microcosm of everything that is wrong with state government," Lapides said.
State Legislative Auditor Anthony Verdecchia told committee members that many of the questioned expenditures resulted from the close affiliation between the health department and the Maryland State Games Foundation.
The foundation was funded largely by state grants, including about $460,000 earmarked for fighting illegal drugs and alcohol abuse. And the foundation was run by a state employee, James E. Narron, who also headed the project for the health department.
By funneling state money to the foundation, "many of the these transactions could take place off the books," said Verdecchia, who called for greater state control of private foundations.
"There were virtually no checks and balances," he said.
He said the state could be liable for federal anti-drug money that was inappropriately spent.
Wilzack offered little defense for some expenditures within her department.
Committee members, for instance, quizzed her about why State Games officials hired Michael Sabatini, son of Deputy Secretary for Health Care Policy Nelson Sabatini. Wilzack said Michael Sabatini was hired to help set up a possible sports festival on the Eastern Shore.
Wilzack was asked about his qualifications. "He had a background in surfing," her personnel chief answered.