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Steve Schuh, director of the Maryland Opioid Operational Command Center, is shown speaking to state lawmakers in Annapolis during a previous General Assembly session. He defended the opioid center Friday before lawmakers, following an audit that found numerous problems with the center's grants process.
Steve Schuh, director of the Maryland Opioid Operational Command Center, is shown speaking to state lawmakers in Annapolis during a previous General Assembly session. He defended the opioid center Friday before lawmakers, following an audit that found numerous problems with the center's grants process. (Ulysses Munoz / Capital Gazette)

Maryland’s point person on the opioid epidemic defended the statewide opioid command center Friday, after a scathing audit found the center had no system for awarding millions of dollars’ worth grants and making sure the money was spent properly.

Steve Schuh, who has headed the Maryland Opioid Operational Command Center since late 2018, said state auditors were correct in identifying a lack of policies and procedures. But he told lawmakers he believes the money was well spent on treatment, prevention and education programs.

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Even though the process was flawed, “that doesn’t mean the grants were bad. It doesn’t mean the programs that were funded were bad,” Schuh told members of the House of Delegates Appropriations Committee.

The opioid center has about $10 million a year to award in grants.

Several delegates expressed dismay at the audit findings and skepticism that the problems are being corrected.

“This is just outrageous,” said Del. Maggie McIntosh, a Baltimore Democrat who chairs the committee. “I find this very, very troubling. I couldn’t believe it when I read it.”

The most eye-popping concern raised in the audit was that the opioid center nearly gave $750,000 to a nonprofit organization called Farming 4 Hunger to buy an old golf course and country club in Caroline County on the Eastern Shore. The site was to be turned into a facility that combined drug treatment with training in agricultural skills. The plan was to operate a farm, a restaurant and potentially a 9-hole golf course.

Schuh bristled at auditors’ description of the property as a former golf course, which he alleged auditors did as a way of “sensationalizing their report.”

He said the golf course was closed many years ago.

“It doesn’t look like a golf course. It looks like cleared, old agricultural land that’s been overgrown,” he said.

Schuh, a former Republican state delegate and former Anne Arundel County executive, said in an interview that he believes the Farming 4 Hunger proposal was sound.

Other parts of the audit also drew concern among lawmakers.

Del. Sheree Sample-Hughes, an Eastern Shore Democrat, cited one part of the audit that showed more than $500,000 that went to Baltimore City to buy the overdose-reversing drug naloxone, but there was no follow-up on how many units of the drug were purchased or where they were distributed. She called the audit findings “disheartening.”

Del. Shaneka Henson, an Anne Arundel County Democrat, questioned what the opioid center’s staff was doing, if not making sure grants were spent properly.

“Where was the state’s value?” she asked.

Schuh said the opioid center’s problems stemmed from the fact that it was created in a rush to respond to the “unprecedented magnitude” of the opioid crisis in the state, which has seen overdose deaths soar in recent years. The opioid center didn’t have the procedures or expertise in place at long-established state agencies.

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“I don’t think there was any malicious intent,” he said.

That didn’t sit well with some delegates. They noted that the opioid center was initially housed in the state’s health department and is now under the Maryland Emergency Management Agency — both of which have experience handling grants and contracts.

Schuh said when he arrived at the opioid center, he started establishing a process for reviewing and awarding grants — before auditors began investigating the center after receiving a tip on a state fraud hotline.

Schuh said the next round of grants will be awarded through a strict process, and the center has a full-time employee devoted to doing follow-up to make sure the money is spent properly.

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