A former Maryland state official pleaded guilty yesterday to stealing $368,000 from a widely praised program he directed to help single parents make child-support payments in Anne Arundel County. Prosecutors said he bet the stolen money at racetracks.

Brent M. Johnson, 61, was secretary of Maryland's Department of Employment and Training before it was abolished in 1987. He joined Anne Arundel's Department of Social Services in 1991 and became the first director of an innovative child-support payment program a few years later. He quit in August 2001 and was arrested in May.

After he pleaded guilty yesterday to felony theft charges in Anne Arundel Circuit Court, prosecutors said outside the courtroom that Johnson, a former Air Force captain with a doctorate in education administration, had wagered the stolen money at several racetracks, including Laurel and Pimlico.

Johnson, who is free pending sentencing, referred all questions about the case to his attorneys, George Lantzas and Frank Gray Jr. Without commenting on the gambling allegations, Lantzas acknowledged his client's "compulsive behavior."

"We're going to produce a lot of significant mitigating evidence to explain his conduct," Lantzas said, referring to a sentencing hearing set for Jan. 22. Maryland sentencing guidelines in Johnson's case call for six months of probation, but the judge could impose prison time.

"Mr. Johnson is a very remorseful man," Lantzas said.

Johnson, tall and gray-haired, nodded and quietly acknowledged to Judge Joseph P. Manck that he stole the money from July 1998 to August 2001. He pleaded guilty to running a theft scheme and misappropriation by a fiduciary and will pay $92,000 in restitution to the state. The figure was arrived at in negotiations between Johnson's attorneys and prosecutors.

Johnson's Child Support Initiative Program began in the mid-1990s and ended shortly after he resigned. The program offered an alternative to unemployed single parents in Anne Arundel who were about to go to jail for defaulting on child-support payments.

Financed by state and county money, the program paid parents $100 a week to attend job-training courses. Some of the $100 was then used for child-support payments.

But the transient nature of Johnson's clientele, and the discretion Johnson was given in distributing the money, made theft easy, prosecutors said. He would cash the government checks for customers who did not have bank accounts and then keep some of the money, prosecutors said, or cash checks for himself that were made out to people no longer in the program.

Officials did not notice the irregularities until an anonymous tipster called the county government, said Assistant State's Attorney Warren W. Davis III.

On the restitution negotiations, Davis said, "I tried to get as much as I possibly could." But his position was weakened by the fact that most of 117 people victimized by Johnson could not be persuaded to appear in court to testify. At a hearing earlier this year, only six witnesses appeared to support the state's case.

Judge Manck can increase the amount Johnson must pay by only $1,000, the maximum fine allowable under the theft scheme charge. Davis said he also will ask for prison time. "And I hope that he's going to get that," the prosecutor said. He did not specify how much prison time he will seek.