Despite hiring freeze, health department added workers for games operation


Although state Health Secretary Adele A. Wilzack ordered a hiring freeze throughout her department more than a year ago, the agency continued to hire workers to promote amateur athletic competitions and to attempt to bring an Olympic Festival to Maryland, according to state payroll records.

The records show that in the past year, the state Department of Health and Mental Hygiene hired six new employees for the Maryland State Games program and offered new contracts to four other temporary workers whose assignments were supposed to be finished. By October, the state games office had grown to a staff of 13 people who cost the state, in salaries and benefits, more than $300,000 a year.

The hiring was permitted even though Ms. Wilzack imposed a freeze late last year amid evidence that applications for help from state medical assistance programs were outpacing the agency's limited resources. In the past year, her department has cut funding for a number of programs, including maternity clinics for the poor, in response to its budget crunch.

Ms. Wilzack refused to talk to reporters yesterday for the third straight day, and other department officials would not say whether she had authorized the hiring in the state games office ** or why it had been permitted.

The state games program is at the center of a controversy that has claimed the jobs of two top state health officials and is the subject of a criminal investigation by the Maryland Attorney General's Office. In court documents, lawyers for the health department have accused the program's staff of misusing hundreds of thousands of dollars in state grants.

James E. Narron, the dismissed director of the Maryland State Games, has asserted that Ms. Wilzack was well aware of his activities, which were funded with money earmarked for fighting drug and alcohol abuse.

Mr. Narron's office was charged with running the Maryland State Games, an annual competition for amateur athletes from across the state. This year, it also was asked to coordinate the state's effort to host the U.S. Olympic Festival, an athletic event sponsored by the U.S. Olympic Committee for the nation's top amateur athletes. Maryland is one of five states vying for the event, and a decision is expected in February.

Legislative budget analysts recommended this year that the health department abolish the state games office and use the money instead to address "the identified health service needs" of Marylanders. But Ms. Wil

zack successfully defended the program, arguing in a written statement to legislators that activities promoting "fitness and health through sports" help guide young people to "lifestyles without drugs."

Those hired for the state games office in the past year include Michael C. Sabatini, the son of one of Ms. Wilzack's top deputies, Nelson J. Sabatini. The younger Mr. Sabatini was hired to head a project called Ocean Games, which was designed to bring international sporting events to Ocean City during the off-season, according to Mr. Narron.

Another new employee, Calvin R. Symons, is a former top official with the U.S. Olympic Festival. He was hired specifically to help the state wage its effort to bring the festival to Maryland, sources say.

While justifying the state games office as a drug prevention effort, state officials have made clear that the Olympic Festival is being sought largely for reasons of economic development, although Mr. Narron has said that the state's $25,000 application fee to the U.S. Olympic Committee was paid with money from the Governor's Drug and Alcohol Abuse Commission.

In discussing the application last July, aides to Ms. Wilzack emphasized that the long-term economic benefits to Maryland

could be far greater than the $25 million or so the state would realize during the festival. The area could attract up to $200 million more over the years as other sports events are drawn, they said at that time.

When U.S. Olympic Committee officials came to Maryland earlier this month to discuss the state's proposal, their hosts included Lt. Gov. Melvin A. Steinberg and Economic and Employment Development Secretary J. Randall Evans.

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