A defiant Baltimore Comptroller Jacqueline F. McLean, saying allegations about her have disrupted the city's business, began an indefinite, paid leave of absence yesterday but refused to answer questions about the controversy engulfing her office.
The embattled comptroller said last night that intense media scrutiny has obscured more pressing issues, from reducing property taxes to hiring more minority and female contractors and slashing the unemployment rate among blacks.
"These are real questions, real concerns that are far, far more important than Jackie McLean," she said at a news conference at her attorney's Mount Vernon office.
Mrs. McLean, the third most powerful official in Baltimore government, is under investigation by Maryland's special prosecutor for allegations that she steered a city lease to a Federal Hill building that she and her husband own.
The lease would have boosted the value of the building, which was for sale, by more than $200,000.
Investigators also are looking into Mrs. McLean's hiring of a public relations aide.
The aide apparently did no work but was paid about $22,000 over the past 15 months, according to checks obtained yesterday by The Sun.
Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke and Council President Mary Pat Clarke have called on Mrs. McLean to explain the mysterious employee, whose checks were mailed to the address of a hair salon owned by the comptroller's sister and brother-in-law.
The city's Board of Ethics is also investigating the actions of Mrs. McLean, who was elected in 1991.
In a loud, clear voice, Mrs. McLean read a statement that defended her record but did not address any of the accusations, which could carry criminal penalties.
She said she will continue to receive her $53,000-a-year salary during her leave.
Instead, she talked about the anguish caused by news media coverage. And she spoke of unfinished work, especially in promoting minority and female business interests.
"Virtually every day for the past three weeks, I have been more important to the local media than President Clinton, the state of our economy, health care reform and the war in Bosnia," she declared. "However, I am not flattered."
She added that she, her husband and her daughter have been "hounded by media phone calls, cameras and microphones.
"Almost every day, media representatives have chased and interrupted us, and interfered with our daily lives beyond what is reasonable."
Mrs. McLean spoke of her campaign for more diversity in government and business.
The comptroller said her leave "does not mean that I and others will no longer support the policies that I have embraced and implemented."
The comptroller was the author of a law requiring that 20 percent of city contracts go to minority-owned businesses and 3 percent to companies led by women.
She assailed Allan L. Reynolds, the city auditor, a "white male," who can "carry out plans to promote white males who are now certified public accountants and skip over qualified black CPAs."
"I have vigorously opposed any such plan, consistent with my policy of promoting minority and women inclusiveness in city government," she said.
Mr. Reynolds could not be reached for comment last night.
"Our citizens, especially members of the African-American community, must understand how important it is to them to have in office people who see the world from a perspective which includes all members of the community," she said.
She also took the opportunity to tout her record. "In my two years as comptroller, I have either initiated or implemented plans that have saved the city over $8 million. I now fear for those plans."
After reading her statement, she left the room without answering any questions.
William H. Murphy Jr., a prominent criminal lawyer representing Mrs. McLean, said simply that she has "temporarily returned to private life."
Unknown official blamed
But he also took a swipe at a public official who "has attempted to exploit Jackie McLean's predicament for her own personal and political gain." He refused to name the official or elaborate.
"We warn anyone who tries to exploit Jackie McLean's predicament for personal advantage that we will respond swiftly and appropriately in the public arena to protect her right to a fair investigation and resolution," he continued.
Both Mr. Schmoke and Ms. Clarke said it was too soon to take steps to remove Ms. McLean from office.
Under the city Charter, the comptroller may be removed for negligence of duty by a majority vote of the council, following proceedings initiated by the mayor.
Deputy Comptroller Shirley A. Williams will lead the office during Mrs. McLean's leave. She is to hold a news conference this afternoon.
Mayor Schmoke, who announced the comptroller's leave of absence some eight hours earlier, said, "The situation looks extremely serious from our point of view. This is the right step to be taken at this point."
He acknowledged that Mrs. McLean will continue to be paid "at this point," adding, "All of this is subject to our review."
He also said three city police investigators are assisting Stephen Montanarelli, the state prosecutor, in his probe.
OCT. 27 -- Baltimore Comptroller Jacqueline F. McLean presents to the Board of Estimates a contract to lease her family's Federal Hill office building to the City Health Department. She does not tell the board of her stake in the building. The lease is approved unanimously.
A few hours later, City Council President Mary Pat Clarke checks property records, discovers the building is owned by Four Seas & Seven Winds, the McLeans' now-defunct travel agency, and changes her vote. She tells a mayoral aide, who does not relay the information to his boss.
NOV. 22 -- After inquiries from a title attorney, City Solicitor Neal M. Janey discovers that the lease lists the nonexistent rear address of the building, and that the building is owned by Mrs. McLean and her husband.
NOV. 24 -- The Board of Estimates rescinds the lease.
DEC. 4 -- Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke calls for an ethics investigation of Mrs. McLean's attempt to slip the lease past city officials.
DEC. 9 -- Maryland's special prosecutor calls his first witnesses before a Baltimore grand jury in a separate criminal investigation of the comptroller's office.
DEC. 17 -- News breaks of a mysterious employee of the comptroller's office -- one who received $21.73 an hour for public relations work but apparently never did any work.
Later, Mayor Schmoke calls on Mrs. McLean to answer questions about her actions.
DEC. 20 -- Saying that the allegations have disrupted city business, Mrs. McLean announces she is taking a paid leave of absence.