The wrong kind of games


With the conviction of John M. Staubitz Jr., an important chapter of the Maryland State Games swindle is closed. The former deputy health secretary helped bilk taxpayers of $1.2 million, much of which should have gone to drug abuse prevention. Instead, it went into his pocket and some others where it didn't belong. Now he and a former aide, James E. Narron, face prison sentences. But that's not the end of the story.

The State Games were not just a facade for theft of public money. They were also a boondoggle that went on for years undetected. Legislative auditors eventually unearthed the illegal diversion of public funds for private gain. But long before that occurred, officials in the state health department should have detected that the games were not doing what they claimed and that money was being diverted from other more worthy programs to finance them. Staubitz & Co. managed to spend about four times as much on the games as the legislature appropriated for them. It should not have taken evidence of criminal activity to uncover the bureaucratic shenanigans.

Former health secretary Adele A. Wilzak had a reputation as a good administrator. Yet her agency, an administrative behemoth, was repeatedly criticized for serious failures to conduct its affairs in a business-like manner. Ms. Wilzak would probably agree today that she did not make sure there were internal checks on even her most trusted deputy. That's a lesson for every public official.

There are other lessons. One is the danger of creating quasi-private foundations as fund-raising devices. Most of the money illegally diverted by Staubitz was channeled through a foundation created for the games. Once in the foundation's coffers, the money was free of controls imposed on spending public funds. Other state institutions, notably colleges (especially the University of Maryland at College Park), have similar foundations. They can serve a useful purpose. They are also vulnerable to abuse if not strictly monitored.

Another lesson is the temptation of officials to try too hard to satisfy Gov. William Donald Schaefer's addiction for glitzy activities that promote the state. The State Games fell too neatly into the pattern of razzle-dazzle that sometimes passes for "do it now" economic development in Annapolis. This was one time when a better motto would have been, "Don't do it -- ever."

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