After Jacqueline F. McLean's first victory in politics in 1983, reporters asked her about the propriety of using her own money -- lots of it -- to secure herself a seat on the Baltimore City Council.
She smiled sweetly. "He who has the gold," she recited, "makes the rules."
Mrs. McLean, 49, often dared to make the rules.
She did not come from the political machines, so she bypassed them by spending her own money. She wanted her business to succeed, so she used unconventional strategies to win clients. She emphasized her black identity while ignoring the racial boundaries that segregate Baltimore socially and geographically.
For a long while, her boldness served her well, catapulting her from city councilwoman to city comptroller. Many thought the mayoralty was well within reach.
Money was often at the center of Mrs. McLean's considerable ambitions and gave definition to her public image. Her wealth not only created her political career but was its very justification. She forever touted her business success and enveloped herself in its symbols -- stylish clothes, expensive homes and fine jewelry.
Now, as she faces a criminal investigation of her conduct, so much of the identity Mrs. McLean cultivated seems illusory.
She promoted herself as a savvy businesswoman, but ran a company that collapsed. She prided herself on her cool professionalism, yet at times displayed an explosive temper. She went out of her way to tout her honesty, but now is accused of a most brazen deceit.
"It doesn't seem that the person I've known is the same as this person," said state Sen. American Joe Miedusiewski, a candidate for the Democratic nomination for governor who has supported Mrs. McLean politically.
Over the past two months, Mrs. McLean has faced a barrage of questions about her activities and is now under investigation by the state prosecutor. As comptroller, she allegedly sent checks totaling more than $25,000 to what appears to be a nonexistent employee and a bogus organization. Some of the money was deposited in an account Mrs. McLean set up. She's also accused of surreptitiously trying to arrange a lucrative city lease of the former headquarters of her once-successful travel agency.
Having so coveted the spotlight, Mrs. McLean is now in forced retreat; she is on an unpaid leave of absence while a grand jury considers the case against her. Once proud of her political independence, Mrs. McLean has now found herself isolated, pilloried on radio talk shows and bereft even of collegial words of support from fellow politicians.
For the past month, there has been only silence from Mrs. McLean. She declined to comment for this article, and her lawyers, after consulting with her doctor, said last week, "We believe that Mrs. McLean's emotional condition is too fragile for her to conduct any interview or answer any questions."
In her last public comments, at a Dec. 20 news conference, Mrs. McLean complained of the hounding she and her family had endured. She warned that the city would suffer without her. But she said she had to leave.
"Enough is enough," she said, and then slipped away from public view.
Two years ago, couples in evening dress stood in the ballroom at the Sheraton Inner Harbor when the guest of honor, resplendent in a black taffeta gown, made her triumphant entrance onto the dance floor.
That day Jacqueline McLean had been sworn in as the city's first black comptroller and its first female comptroller. Now she was throwing Baltimore's first comptroller's ball, complete with 19-piece swing band, a gourmet dinner and champagne.
The symbols were all wrong. Here was a city with a dwindling treasury and an office that had to exude parsimony. Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke held his own austere inauguration that same day in an auditorium at City College. But Jacqueline McLean was having nothing of restraint.
She was everywhere that night, flashing her most dazzling smile and bussing the cheeks of businessmen and politicians who had paid $85 to attend the gala. "This is Jackie," she said. "Jackie is going to be out there. This is not going to be an invisible office any longer."
What few knew, though, was how hollow was the image she had so carefully created.
By that night, the travel agency Mrs. McLean had founded with her husband, James, was in shambles, and the couple was fending off its collapse. Mrs. McLean had convinced voters that her business skills best qualified her for the comptroller's office. But by the time she was being sworn in, those credentials were fraying.
If Mrs. McLean's business travails were unknown to most, not much else was known about her either, even as she was assuming the third-highest elected position in Baltimore government.
For a public official, Mrs. McLean has never spoken much about her past, even to friends. She has always refused to reveal her place of birth, omitting it from her official biographies. She told a Sun reporter in a 1992 interview that people ridiculed her when she mentioned her hometown, so she stopped telling them.
The oldest of four children, Mrs. McLean moved often while growing up. Her father, Army Lt. Colonel George L. Fountain, took his family with him from post to post, including overseas assignments in the Philippines, France and Germany. (In official biographies, Mrs. McLean says she speaks French fluently.) After his retirement in 1964, he settled his wife, Marie, and children in Baltimore.
In interviews, Mrs. McLean has never talked very specifically about her upbringing. In a 1992 interview though, she spoke of a youthful lesson about honesty when her father caught her in a lie. He was greatly disappointed in her.
"I have never to this day told anybody a lie. Never," she said. "No matter how much it hurts, I'll tell you the truth. You ask me? I'll tell you the truth."
Of her educational background, Mrs. McLean has said that she attended several schools -- the American Institute of Banking in New York, the Institute of Computer Programming and LaSalle University. Because her descriptions are vague -- the names of the schools and degrees vary in different documents, and locations are not usually given -- they are impossible to verify. One of the schools said its own recordkeeping was unreliable.
In her official biography with the city, Mrs. McLean also said she was a former teacher and "programming instructor" at Forest Park High School. However, there is no record of Mrs. McLean (or Verna Jacqueline Fountain, her maiden name) being employed by the school system, schools spokesman Nat Harrington said.
Soon after arriving in Baltimore, she worked as a secretary to Verda Welcome, then state senator from West Baltimore. She switched jobs in the late '60s or early '70s and became a commissioner with the city's municipal court.
On her 24th birthday in 1968, she married James H. McLean. Eight years her senior, he was a postal clerk who went on to become a liquor distributor and swimming pool salesman. In 1972, their daughter, Michelle, was born.
Mrs. McLean has said the couple shared an ambition to own their own business. They considered and rejected a dress shop and a service station before she suggested a business her husband liked: a travel agency.
Four Seas and Seven Winds opened in 1975 in a tiny office in Bolton Hill with secondhand desks and phones on the floor. It wasn't until its third year that Mrs. McLean felt secure enough to quit her courthouse job.
The McLeans gambled on a risky strategy. Travel agents make money by keeping about 10 percent of the price of every airline ticket they sell. But the McLeans offered to return a share of their commissions to corporate clients. That won them some big clients -- including Black & Decker Corp., USF&G; Insurance and the local operations of American Telephone & Telegraph Co.
The new customers fueled a rapid expansion. By 1981, the couple was able to buy a two-story brick building in fashionable Federal Hill for $145,000. They spent tens of thousands of dollars renovating it as the agency's headquarters.
The McLeans took home more than $100,000 a year in salaries and profits some years, according to court records, as the business afforded them an increasingly opulent lifestyle.
After living in Fallston, in Harford County, and Northwest Baltimore, the couple bought a $193,000 Guilford home in 1984. When the business reached its peak four years later, they bought two vacation properties -- a $375,000 beachfront condominium on Fenwick Island in Delaware and a $155,000 house at Waterside at Wisp near Deep Creek Lake.
The McLeans traveled frequently -- often to the Virgin Islands. Friends say their Baltimore home was expensively decorated. Mrs. McLean wore smartly tailored suits with silk blouses, a fur coat and a large diamond ring.
The couple's real estate and other assets were worth more than $1.7 million by 1992, according to loan documents filed by the McLeans.
The McLeans developed new friendships with prominent business people, both white and black. In a city of sharp racial demarcations, they mixed easily on both sides of the divide. Although they lived in virtually all-white neighborhoods, they remained close to black business executives and professionals.
Tucky Ramsey, a socialite, recalls that the McLeans often were the only blacks to appear at charity events where she was host for groups such as the Boys and Girls Club of Maryland. And one wealthy black Baltimorean says that when the couple bought a table at benefits for a black charity, they often would bring the only whites to the event.
On a summer day in 1983, the last day candidates could file for public office, Jacqueline and Jim McLean walked into Baltimore's election board office and signed her up as a City Council candidate in East Baltimore's 2nd District.
It was a surprise because she didn't live there and was unknown to virtually everyone who did.
"The perception by everyone was that she was a long shot," said Ralph Moore, one of the other 21 candidates in the primary race. "People took seriously those who had been active in the community. Most people had never heard of her."
There is a difference of opinion about why Mrs. McLean decided to enter politics. One political consultant, who was friendly with the McLeans at the time, insists that Mrs. McLean was the political creation of her husband, who had run unsuccessfully for 2nd District council seat in 1967.
"I think he wanted power; he wanted to be a player," said the consultant, who asked to remain unidentified. "People are covering this as a 'Jackie McLean story,' but it's really 'The Jim McLean Story.'"
But a politically connected businessman says that Mr. McLean told him that his wife was eager for a political career. "The man loved the woman. A lot. If that's what she wanted, he wanted her to have it."
Both sources agree that it was Mr. McLean who directed the campaign. He did so with great imagination.
Councilmanic races traditionally were won by door-to-door campaigning followed by intensive Election Day work, generally provided by political clubs.
Then as now, television was considered far too expensive and too inefficient for mere council candidates. For Mrs. McLean, though, it was neither. Campaign finance reports show that she spent $25,000 on the campaign -- and all of it was her own.
Unknown and unconnected to any political club, Mrs. McLean couldn't expect to attract money from others. "She bought that election," says Anthony J. Ambridge, a councilman from the 2nd District who in 1983 was running for his first term.
"Some husbands buy their wives a fur coat or diamond ring for Christmas," one political adviser said Mr. McLean confided at the time. "I'm buying mine an election."
Others, however, saw the McLeans' use of their own money in a more positive light. "I guess she wanted to make a difference, and she had the finances that guaranteed her independence," said state Del. Clarence "Tiger" Davis, an east-side politician.
Mrs. McLean was not simply an advertising creation. She was a tireless door-to-door campaigner possessed of great charm. Still, what people best remember from her campaign were the media: the billboards, the bulk mailings, the eye-catching McLean shopping bags and, of course, the radio and television ads.
What she didn't have was an issue. ""She wasn't saying, 'I'm so fed up with the way things are going,' " said Carl Stokes, another 2nd District Council candidate who lost that year but won four years later. Her main point was that she was new. Her campaign slogan: "A voice, not an echo."
In the ornate, vaulted chambers of the Baltimore City Council, members spend much of their time posturing and politicking. The council does not have much power and only rarely passes legislation of sweeping importance.
In Mrs. McLean's first term, she pulled off the exception. She spearheaded the passage of a bill guaranteeing a share of city business to companies owned by minorities and women.
It was a delicate trick of cajolery and compromise that finally turned on bringing aboard a dubious William Donald Schaefer, then mayor.
Mrs. McLean's admirers and detractors both praise her tireless efforts in passing the bill, which some considered precedent-setting.
"I think she was really able to break ground in the field of set-asides for minorities and women," said Carl O. Snowden, an Annapolis alderman, adding that her legislation was used as a model in his city.
As co-owner of a minority business, Mrs. McLean certainly understood the issue. She has also talked about the wounds she suffered from racism.
"I know what it's like to be called names," she said in a 1992 interview. "I know what it's like to walk down a street and have people glare at you with such hate and contempt that it would make your skin crawl."
Even while she was involved in the minority business fight, her council colleagues say, she was still absorbed in her travel agency.
"She just did not spend a great deal of time at City Hall or involved in council affairs," said Joseph T. "Jody" Landers III, a former councilman from the 3rd District who ran against Mrs. McLean for comptroller.
The time at Four Seas was apparently well spent. Only months after her election, the McLeans snagged the job of arranging travel for Democrat Walter Mondale's presidential campaign. By 1988, Four Seas was booking approximately $40 million worth of airline tickets and hotel rooms a year. It was taking in more than $3 million in commissions, had almost 90 employees and more than a dozen offices across the country. Publications hailed Four Seas as one of the state's biggest minority-owned businesses.
Mrs. McLean went to great lengths to keep tabs on her growing staff. In court testimony in a lawsuit, she acknowledged regularly rifling through the desks of her employees to search for misplaced checks. She also installed a telephone system that enabled her or others to listen in on conversations.
In 1984, her suspiciousness led to a felony theft charge -- eventually dismissed -- against one of her former salesmen, but it resulted in a $43,000 judgment against her for malicious prosecution. She was also ordered to pay the former employee more than $100,000 in back commissions.
Outraged by the jury's finding, Mrs. McLean stood in the hallway outside the courtroom and screamed a vulgarity about the judge and jury, adding that they could all "go to hell," according to one witness. The judge called her into his chambers and threatened to find her in contempt of court.
Colleagues on the City Council also recalled Mrs. McLean's quick retorts. "She could be very, very charming as she often was in her campaign," said Mr. Stokes, "but she could be very, very vicious and have a sharp tongue. She could really rip you apart if you were on the opposing side."
Even admirers acknowledge that Mrs. McLean is unusually blunt. "Jackie is a very direct person," said Raymond V. Haysbert Sr., chairman of Parks Sausage Co. "She's not a backslapper. In combination with her directness, it may create . . . antagonism."
If her temper and tart tongue were familiar to political colleagues and employees, they were unknown to the public. Voters saw her mainly as a poised businesswoman and the articulate champion of the minority business bill, an achievement that seemed to offer political opportunities.
After only one term, Mrs. McLean announced her candidacy for City Council president, the second-highest elected position in Baltimore. It was an ambitious goal, and one that she invested in heavily. Her campaign treasury peaked that year at $317,000 -- and $193,000 came from the McLeans' own pockets.
Still, by midsummer, it was evident that Mrs. McLean didn't have the support to win a race and she dropped out, settling instead for re-election to her old council seat.
In 1991, she was back for another citywide run, this time for comptroller.
The campaign went smoothly on all fronts. Mrs. McLean went door to door, spoke before church groups and danced with supporters at big benefits that featured gospel singers. Primarily, though, she again took to the airwaves, touting her business success for a job that put her on the board that approves all city expenditures and gave her responsibility for the agency that audits all municipal finances.
The outsider from eight years ago now proved herself ready to come inside. In this race, she and Mr. McLean wooed -- and won -- powerful, white political clubs. She finished with an impressive 49 percent of the vote. She was now, said state Sen. Julian L. Lapides of Baltimore, at "the forefront of Baltimore city politics."
Business in jeopardy
Just as Mrs. McLean was seizing her greatest political prize, her business was slipping from her grasp. For two years, Four Seas had been losing money. In winning their prestigious accounts, the McLeans had cut prices below costs, according to some local travel agency owners.
"Nobody could rebate the way they rebated and stay in business," said Mimi Roeder, owner of a competing agency.
By summer 1991, in the midst of a recession, Four Seas was foundering.
As she campaigned that summer, Mrs. McLean appealed to the state insurance commissioner to help keep her travel business alive.
Because of Four Seas' shaky finances, its insurer said it would withdraw a bond guaranteeing airlines payment for tickets sold by the agency. Without a guarantee, airlines won't let a travel agency sell tickets.
Mrs. McLean asked the insurance commission to investigate the insurer, saying the cancellation was "unwarranted, bias [sic] and totally unfair." She claimed the cancellation was "an attack on one individual."
But state insurance investigators concluded it was justified, and for several weeks, Four Seas had to find another agency to write its tickets.
The McLeans' business continued to falter. In late August, USF&G; filed a $140,000 suit against the agency for failing to pay promised commission rebates. A Milwaukee landlord sued for back rent on an office. Four Seas closed other offices it could no longer afford.
As her business unraveled, Mrs. McLean found little relief in her new job as comptroller. Criticism over her inaugural ball was quickly followed by news that she had ordered a new $20,000 Grand Marquis at the city's expense, instead of using the former comptroller's more modest car.
When asked why she bought the car, she claimed she didn't own one. But state motor vehicle records showed she actually owned three.
Mrs. McLean said the criticism was racially motivated. She had received only a few calls of complaint, she said, and "all of them were [from] white males."
"Those were very conservative, bigoted individuals," she told a Sun reporter a month later.
Mrs. McLean touched on the same theme when, as she moved into the comptroller's office, she told the staff to remove photos of her predecessors, saying she didn't want to be surrounded by pictures of white men. Several months later, she was named in a discrimination suit after eliminating the jobs of several senior employees, all of them white men.
Even as she was settling into her new position, Mrs. McLean remained preoccupied by the continuing deterioration of Four Seas, which, by 1992, needed a financial bailout.
The McLeans turned to the Development Credit Fund Inc., a community lender for minority businesses. In March 1992, the McLeans pledged all their assets for a $750,000 loan. They used the state-guaranteed money to pay debts to customers, airlines and banks. But the reprieve was short-lived. By the end of the year, the company was in tax delinquency.
The McLeans became more desperate to raise cash. They sold their home in Guilford for $365,000 and bought a three-story condominium in the Colonnade for $215,000. They put the Delaware condo on the market. (They had already sold their Deep Creek Lake home a year earlier.) They also started to look for buyers for Four Seas.
Last office closed
It was then -- in the fall of 1992 -- that Mrs. McLean drew up a city contract with the mysterious Michele McCloud, an apparently nonexistent employee whose biweekly checks were sent to a hair salon owned by the comptroller's sister.
By the next fall, Four Seas closed its last office and sold its customer list.
Still, the McLeans were left with huge debts, including nearly $200,000 owed to the Internal Revenue Service, $112,000 to the airlines, and $21,000 to a Milwaukee landlord. And in October, the Development Credit Fund filed court documents threatening personal foreclosure against the McLeans if they didn't pay the $340,000 left on the loan.
Their business failure was no longer secret. Several creditors filed lawsuits, leading to publicity about their difficulties. A distraught Mrs. McLean blamed her troubles on a vendetta by her political enemies.
One October morning, she cornered the mayor and complained at length that she was being persecuted by the Development Credit Fund. She blamed Daniel P. Henson III, the city's housing commissioner, because she had blocked a $2.5 million federal grant to the fund, an organization Mr. Henson had helped found.
Mrs. McLean also called the mayor at home one midnight and accused him of "trying to do something to her through my 'henchmen,' " Mr. Schmoke said. Mrs. McLean quickly retracted that charge. Yet she continued to complain to friends and reporters that Mr. Henson and his friends were bent on destroying her.
Faced with the threat of bankruptcy, the McLeans sought help from a friend and campaign contributor, developer Otis Warren Jr. Mr. Warren promised to buy the couple's vacant building in Federal Hill for at least $550,000, enough to pay off the McLeans' debts, if a tenant could be found.
One of the McLeans approached several city agencies, including the police department, about renting the space. At a political fund-raiser, Mr. McLean learned that the city's geriatric nursing service needed new office space. The McLeans believed they had their tenant.
In late October, Mrs. McLean slipped the lease past top city officials by not disclosing who owned the building. One reason the mayor and council president didn't blink at the 10-year, million-dollar deal: City documents listed the rear entrance as the property's address, instead of the front, which might have been recognized as the former location of Mrs. McLean's travel agency.
That minor detail would prove to have major consequences for Mrs. McLean. A title attorney discovered the incorrect address, called the city solicitor and, within hours, the lease was revoked. The mayor rejected Mrs. McLean's plea that he reconsider, and the state prosecutor, Stephen Montanarelli, opened his inquiry.
December brought a parade of Mrs. McLean's employees and relatives to a downtown courthouse to testify before a city grand jury. Top city officials criticized her. The mayor suggested she consider stepping down.
While the public scorn mounted, the McLeans managed to resolve some of their financial problems as they received money owed their business. On Nov. 9, they paid off all their tax liens. In late December, they paid off their entire Development Credit Fund debt.
But Mrs. McLean's troubles appear far from over.
Her business is gone. So, too, for the moment, is her job with its $53,000 salary. Unless she can explain the mysteries that surround her, she may be unable to salvage her reputation or her political career.
More threatening is the work of the grand jury, which has gone into extended session while investigators pore over three file cabinets of city contracts.
Mrs. McLean, who so recently seemed to have it all, is now waiting to see if she will face criminal charges.
Having lost the gold, she can no longer make the rules.