Plea-bargain process set up by judge may resolve McLean case


While Baltimore Comptroller Jacqueline F. McLean remains confined to a hospital under a suicide watch, an extraordinary plea-bargaining process arranged by the Baltimore Circuit Court's highest ranking judge may be leading to a resolution of the charges against her.

After a week of dramatic courtroom encounters -- and after politics invaded the courthouse -- Judge Joseph H. H. Kaplan, the court's administrative judge, entered the case Friday in search of a calmer process.

"I was disturbed by the back and forth. It doesn't look good. It's not the way cases ought to be tried," he said in an interview yesterday.

At the heart of the courtroom controversy is tension between Mrs. McLean's lawyers, William H. Murphy Jr. and M. Cristina Gutierrez, and the trial judge, Elsbeth L. Bothe. That sort of tension is par for the course with Mr. Murphy, Judge Bothe said yesterday.

"Billy has fireworks with all the judges. He doesn't have more with me than the next person," Judge Bothe said. "Billy uses his wits to get what he wants, and he succeeds. When I give Billy his way, he loves me. And I do sometimes."

The judge said she had agreed during plea discussions she had earlier in the week that Mrs. McLean should be sentenced to a year in jail. But she said the actual jail time would be determined after further psychiatric evaluation and could range from "straight-out probation to no more than one year."

Mrs. McLean's lawyers, who could not be reached for comment yesterday, insisted that she serve no time, "not even five minutes," Judge Bothe said. There the matter stood when Judge Kaplan intervened.

He stepped in, he said, before five City Council members asked for a meeting to complain about what they called a rush to judgment of the ailing defendant.

Now on unpaid leave from city government, she has been charged with stealing more than $25,000 in public money and with trying to arrange a $1 million city lease for the one-time headquarters of a travel agency she owned. She has been hospitalized for depression since January.

Replacing Judge Bothe

Judge Kaplan's intervention may have the effect of replacing Judge Bothe. If a plea is agreed to, it would be heard, for procedural reasons, by another judge.

Judge Kaplan said he disagreed that the trial had been handled unfairly so far, but that he shared some of the City Council members' concern about proceeding so quickly against a defendant with obvious mental instability. While other defendants in recent political-corruption trials have been given no special relief, they have not been as clearly disturbed as Mrs. McLean, he said.

"The council members indicated the community was very upset and they were getting a lot of phone calls. Hopefully, nothing would erupt, but there was always the possibility," he said.

The council members' mission left others in the city, including Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke, concerned about the appearance of a political power play: The Circuit Court's operating budget must be approved each year by the council. To complicate matters farther, Judge Kaplan is running for re-election this year.

"It's not the type of thing I would have done," the mayor said of the council members' meeting. "You have a lot of good people, people whose integrity is not in question, putting themselves in a position where questions are asked about the propriety of their actions."

He said he thought it was important for the council members to explain why they got involved.

Appearance of interference

"Without further explanation it leaves an appearance of political interference even though that interference may not, in fact, exist. I'm not rushing to judgment on the actions of the council people, but I believe for a number of reasons that the situation deserves further explanation."

Mr. Schmoke said council members should be cautious about their involvement because they will have to vote for a temporary replacement for Mrs. McLean if she is found guilty or accepts a plea bargain.

"Their involvement with this situation is uncertain but clear that they could potentially have a lot to say."

The delay in disposition of the case might have even more direct political implications for council members. At least two of them have said they would like to replace Mrs. McLean and one, Councilman Lawrence Bell, a 4th District Democrat, is thought to have -- for the moment at least -- the 10 votes he would need for the appointment.

If he or another member of the council secured the post early enough, he or she might have an advantage in next year's city elections. But the more that appointment is delayed, the less the advantage.

For this reason and others, Councilman Martin O'Malley, a 3rd District Democrat, intensified earlier criticism. He observed that Iris G. Reeves, a 5th District Democrat, and one of the council members who attended the meeting, is a contender for the post.

He called the meeting "reprehensible."

"Wrong because it was secret"

"It was wrong because it was secret," he said. "It was political pressure."

Judge Kaplan said only two of the five-member council delegation spoke during the meeting, Vera P. Hall, council vice president, and Ms. Reeves, who denied Friday that she had been at such a meeting.

Both women, the judge said, told him they were concerned that Mrs. McLean was being treated differently because she is a black woman -- "differently than a white man or even a black man."

Others at the meeting were Melvin Stukes, a 6th District Democrat; and Sheila Dixon and Carl Stokes, both 2nd District Democrats, Mr. Stokes declined again yesterday to comment on the meeting, as did Council President Mary Pat Clarke.

Judge Kaplan said yesterday he had become increasingly concerned about the atmosphere surrounding the McLean trial. He said he asked Judge Bothe if she could work out a plea agreement.

"She said they were nowhere . . . It was oil and water," he said.

Would she mind, he asked, if he tried?

"She said she had no objection," the judge continued. So he arranged a meeting with Mrs. McLean's lawyers.

That meeting also involved State Prosecutor Stephen Montanarelli, and Judge Joseph P. McCurdy Jr., who presides over the court's criminal docket.

Judge Kaplan said he did not know until the plea discussions began Friday that court-appointed psychiatrists had involuntarily committed Ms. McLean to a hospital after she told one of them Friday morning that she regarded suicide as "an option."

Action in Septenber

As a matter of procedure, Judge McCurdy will preside over a rearraignment when the matter resumes in September.

A plea could be entered and accepted then -- without further involvement of Judge Bothe, apparently a condition of any plea arrangement set by Mrs. McLean's lawyers.

Judge Bothe predicted that another battle will erupt in September.

"They think she'll accept a plea. I make you a bet she won't. And then the case will come back to me," she said. She said she might remove herself from the case if that happens.

"In view of things that have occurred, maybe another judge had better have the headache," she said.

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