A soap opera at City Hall


WILLIE Sutton was once asked why he robbed banks. His memorable reply -- "because that's where the money is" -- apparently also is the reason why Jacqueline F. McLean ran for comptroller: That's where the bucks are.

The comptroller in some ways has broader authority than either the mayor or the City Council president, both of whom sit with her at the top of city government's power pyramid.

As comptroller, Ms. McLean controls the city's real estate division, the city retirement system, the auditing division and the insurance purchasing unit.

She also has a vote on the Board of Estimates.

Ms. McLean's predecessor, the redoubtable Hyman A. Pressman, viewed the comptroller's position as that of a "civic watchdog."

Now that Ms. McLean appears to have been caught with her fingers in the cookie jar, however, it seems the watchdog may need a watchdog of its own.

Jackie, Jackie, Jackie! How crude, how crass, how utterly entertaining these blunders are!

Baltimore's on a roll. Even New York and New Jersey can't top this spectacular display of chutzpah. It's almost as if a city official were trying to break into jail.

So it comes as no surprise that in what might be her valedictory statement as comptroller, Ms. McLean chose to invoke those two harbingers of doom -- racism and the media. Ditto her attorney, the flamboyant William H. Murphy Jr., in his manifesto on the McLean matter.

In announcing that she's taking a paid leave of absence from her $53,000-a-year elected office, Ms. McLean said she and her family have been hounded by the media.

And she attacked the city auditor, Arthur Reynolds, who is white, for promoting whites over qualified blacks.

Funny thing. Ms. McLean has never been known as a crusader for minority causes.

Minority businesses, maybe, but not the gritty, city street issues.

In fact, most of her friends and supporters are white high-rollers and political organizations which she supplied generously with walk-around money. And she lives in a swank condo in uppity Roland Park, which is about as white as Wonder Bread.

What's emerging is not a one-time game of penny-ante.

What we're seeing is a systematic pattern of abuse and thumb-to-nose arrogance -- hubris, if you will.

What's worse, there is an apparent lack of checks and balances or any system of review on the city Board of Estimates.

The troublesome items that have provoked such controversy were slipped by the other board members in the final minutes of meetings. They are known as "hand-carried" items that do not appear on the board's scheduled agenda.

Now it's reported that Ms. McLean never attended the pre-board meetings to discuss matters up for consideration by the board.

Here's the paperwork on Ms. McLean so far:

* Ms. McLean was sharply criticized three years ago for sponsoring a lavish inaugural ball for herself during the height of the recession, when even Mayor Kurt Schmoke began his second term with a modest ceremony in a school auditorium.

* Ms. McLean was sharply criticized for buying a top-of-the-line automobile with city funds shortly after taking office, then lying about it by claiming she had no car when in fact she had two.

* Ms. McLean was reprimanded for steering city travel business to the agency owned by her and her husband, Four Winds and Seven Seas.

* Ms. McLean's misadventure that caught the attention of the state special prosecutor involved an apparent sweetheart deal with real estate developer Otis Warren on a Federal Hill building that she and her husband own.

She managed to grease a $1 million city lease on the building through the Board of Estimates without revealing that she had an interest in the property or that its sale to Mr. Warren was contingent upon the city contract.

The lease was rescinded when it was discovered she and her husband owned the property.

* Ms. McLean's sleight of hand misled the Board of Estimates a second time when she slipped past the board a personnel contract worth thousands of dollars to a mystery recipient.

The checks were mailed to a Park Heights Avenue beauty salon owned by Ms. McLean's sister and brother in-law.

The contract went to Michele D. McCloud, whom no one has seen and who has performed no work. But by coincidence, Ms. McLean just happens to have a daughter named Michele.

The money was deposited in two accounts at Harbor Bank under the name of an apparently fictitious organization.

The accounts bear the names of Michele D. McLean, the comptroller herself and lobbyist Carolyn Burridge, who says her signature was forged.

* There also have been persistent but undocumented rumors of stock manipulation involving Education Alternatives Inc., the firm that runs the privatized "Tesseract" schools in Baltimore.

Ms. McLean's behavior as a public official is under review by both the state special prosecutor and the city's ethics board.

A negative ruling by the ethics commission would be a misdemeanor. Indictment by a grand jury would result in a felony charge.

The City Council has the authority to remove Ms. McLean from office, but the impeachment mechanism must be triggered by Mr. Schmoke. The mayor has said he'll take no action until the ethics commission hands down a ruling, but he has urged Ms. McLean to explain her actions publicly.

She apparently has ignored that advice.

What is remarkable about the McLean episode is the relative lack of sympathy for her even within the black community. Since she was first elected to public office in 1983, Ms. McLean made a habit of abusing both people and power. Now it's get-even time.

When she was first confronted with details of the cozy lease deal, she protested her innocence, saying "Call me stupid."

Dumb, maybe, but certainly not stupid.

Frank A. DeFilippo writes a regular column on Maryland politics.

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