Embattled Baltimore Comptroller Jacqueline F. McLean turned over the keys to her city-owned car yesterday after top officials pointed out she did not need it while on an indefinite, paid leave of absence.
Mrs. McLean, the third most powerful official in Baltimore government, gave up her Mercury Grand Marquis nine days after she stepped aside pending the outcome of criminal and ethics investigations.
Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke said he was surprised to learn that the comptroller still was driving a city car. Yesterday morning, he asked City Solicitor Neal M. Janey to look into the matter and to contact Mrs. McLean's attorney. By midafternoon, the twilight blue 1992 model was back in the city's central garage.
"The comptroller was very willing to give back the car," said Marie C. Henderson, public information officer for the comptroller's office.
Mr. Janey said the car became a policy issue because "having relinquished her responsibilities, there would be no city business for her to be conducting. So she should relinquish the city car."
The comptroller's attorney, William H. Murphy Jr., said, "She surrendered the vehicle without anybody requesting it."
The car's return stilled a small storm of controversy following a report in The Sun that Mrs. McLean still was driving the telephone-equipped sedan, which she received the day she was sworn into office.
Over the past week, City Hall offices have been barraged with calls from angry constituents complaining that the comptroller continues to draw her $53,000-a-year salary.
Like all elected city officials, she is entitled to unlimited leave time.
Mrs. McLean stepped aside Dec. 20, saying that allegations about her were disrupting the city's business.
The comptroller is under investigation by Maryland's special prosecutor for hiring a public relations consultant who was paid more than $23,000 but never showed up at the office and apparently did no work.
City officials stopped payment on the last two checks issued to the consultant, Michele McCloud, who used the same address as a Northwest Baltimore hair salon owned by the comptroller's sister. A total of $23,181.89 in checks was issued to Ms. McCloud, according to a revised city report.
The checks were deposited into two bank accounts under the name of an apparently fictitious women's group -- the first of which was opened by Mrs. McLean herself. Another $2,000 in payments from the comptroller's office went to the group, which is not incorporated in Maryland. It also used the address of Salon Me'Chelle, the Park Heights Avenue hair salon.
State Prosecutor Stephen Montanarelli also is looking into allegations that Mrs. McLean steered a city lease to a Federal Hill building that she and her husband own. That lease would have increased the value of the building, which was for sale, by at least $200,000.
The comptroller's attorney has refused to answer questions about the lease or the contract with Ms. McCloud.
Yesterday, he would not provide any details on the return of the car. The car initially was to be picked up at his Mount Vernon law offices. However, it was driven straight to the garage, said George G. Balog, director of public works. He did not think that Mrs. McLean was driving.
Some five hours earlier, Mr. Schmoke told reporters that he was "not aware that she was using the city vehicle." He said he asked the Department of Public Works and Mr. Janey to look into the issue because top city officials usually return their cars to the city's pool when they're on vacation or extended leave.