The resignation of Maryland's health secretary, Adele Wilzack, over her agency's mismanagement of an amateur athletic program comes at a time when the state's largest and perhaps most complex department is operating with only one of its three deputy secretaries.
Nelson J. Sabatini, the deputy secretary for health-care policy, finance and regulations, said yesterday "it would be presumptuous of me to speculate about that" when asked if he would be willing to fill in as acting secretary until Wilzack's successor is chosen.
Gov. William Donald Schaefer "will make those decisions at the appropriate time," Sabatini said.
Meanwhile, Schaefer has said he would accept Wilzack's resignation "with regret," blaming problems in the State Games program on "employees who let her down." He has no idea who he would appoint to replace Wilzack, he said.
Wilzack has been under fire from legislators since irregularities in the State Games program first surfaced nearly two months ago.
Sabatini, who was a deputy commissioner in the Social Security Administration before joining the state agency three years ago, described Wilzack, 54, as a "class act and a very special lady who believed in what she was doing and in public service."
He said he is disappointed with the way things have turned out "because Adele deserves much better."
Heaping further praise on Wilzack, Sabatini said, "She was one of the best, or maybe the best, boss I ever had in my 29 years of public service."
Wilzack submitted a letter of resignation late yesterday morning to Schaefer.
She said in a statement that "mismanagement and abuse of the State Games project" by her former subordinates has interfered with her ability to serve and "apparently" distracted the legislature from "important health-care issues."
She said that continuing as secretary "will diminish . . . Schaefer's ability to lead the state in this time of crisis. . . . At this point, I have concluded that I will serve the state best by stepping aside and resigning my office."
The State Games program was intended to promote amateur athletics that would lure young people away from drug use. Wilzack has maintained that trusted aides kept her in the dark about a host of unusual expenses, some of which went for condominium rentals and overseas travels.
After a legislative audit exposed questionable spending, Wilzack shut down the project and accepted the resignations" of two subordinates responsible for the games, according to her statement.
One of those was John Staubitz, deputy secretary for operations. The other official who was dismissed was James E. Narron, the State Games director.
Dr. John Stafford, deputy secretary for public health services, resigned last November to return to the practice of medicine. He was not connected with the controversial sports program.
The date Wilzack's resignation takes effect is not known. It was not mentioned in her statement.
"The governor will decide when her resignation will be effective," said Michael Golden, the health department's public relations officer. He said he does not know what Wilzack's plans are, but he thinks she "will probably enjoy some free time" before seeking work.
Wilzack, whose salary topped $100,000, was sworn in for her third term within the last two weeks. She was tapped for the health secretary's post eight years ago by Gov. Harry R. Hughes and was reappointed by Schaefer in 1987.
Wilzack, who over the years has maintained a very low profile, could not be reached by telephone at her home last night.
"She did not consider that [talking to reporters] her strength," said Richard H. Wade, the Maryland Hospital Association vice president for communications.
Sabatini explained Wilzack's reluctance to be interviewed, even when the news would have been favorable, by saying, "Adele was someone who was more interested in making progress than in making news."
Some of those who left the department because they did not agree with Wilzack's management style refused to comment on her resignation.
But Dr. Gillian Van Blerk, the former head of the state AIDS Administration who now works in the Prince George's County Health Department, said, "I hope the governor will move quickly so that we can have a new secretary soon and once again begin to hold our heads up in public health.
"I don't think anybody likes it when somebody who has a position like that comes under that kind of an indictment and scrutiny. I think it's a really sad and destructive thing for us who are working for the public's health. When our leader is under question like that, then somehow, we all come under question."
Hospitals and the patients they serve, particularly the poor, will view Wilzack's resignation with regret because "she had an extraordinary sensitivity for the needs of the poor, the disabled and the chronically ill . . . ." Wade said.
"The great sorrow in this is that she was undermined by people she trusted," Wade said.
Lynda Dee, an attorney and the executive director of AIDS Action Baltimore, said she is not surprised by Wilzack's resignation and that "it probably is a good thing."
Dee added, "As far as AIDS is concerned, I kind of hope that maybe this will be a blessing in disguise. Wilzack has never been sympathetic to that. She's just never been there. She's been like a cold fish."
Although some of the AIDS advocacy groups may have hoped for a stronger commitment to AIDS programs and funding from Wilzack, she is credited with establishing the state AIDS Administration in 1987.
Some of Wilzack's other key contributions have included comprehensive inpatient and outpatient facilities for pregnant women who are on drugs, which are scheduled to open in May on the grounds of Francis Scott Key Medical Center in southeast Baltimore. In addition, she has spearheaded continuing support for programs designed to reduce teen-age pregnancy. In the area of mental health, she has significantly reduced the inpatient hospital census by establishing 38 community rehabilitation programs and 39 community residential rehabilitation agencies.
Some legislators reacted with sadness and subdued relief at Wilzack's decision to resign.
"It's unfortunate because I think she has been a very excellent secretary of health," said House Appropriations Committee Chairman Charles J. Ryan, D-Prince George's. "I guess it's a sin of omission on her part in that she says this [mismanagement] was going on in her department without her knowledge."
State legislative leaders have questioned Wilzack's ability to continue in her post in the wake of allegations of financial irregularities, nepotism and mismanagement in the State Games program.
House Speaker R. Clayton Mitchell Jr., D-Eastern Shore, said he respected Wilzack's accomplishments but had personally asked her to resign in a series of four discussions beginning last Thursday.
"Unfortunately, this has happened on her watch. I think it's best for her personally and the governor and the state that she resign," Mitchell said.
Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr., D-Prince George's, said he was not satisfied with Wilzack's defense that she was unaware of the actions of her subordinates.
"She was in charge of a department in which more than $1 billion in taxpayers' money was spent," Miller said.
Despite mounting criticism from lawmakers, Schaefer had continued to express his support for Wilzack. Last week, he called her "the most hard-working, caring, dedicated person I've ever known."
The state attorney general's office is investigating the State Games program for possible criminal wrongdoing.