The once-promising career of Baltimore Comptroller Jacqueline F. McLean, whose wrenching political and personal downfall has transfixed the city, could end as early as next week with her retirement.
Mrs. McLean, who remains confined to a psychiatric hospital under suicide watch while awaiting trial on fraud and misconduct charges, has asked to leave office with full benefits, her lawyer said yesterday. A city pension board could consider the application at a special meeting Monday.
"Retirement will settle all the outside pressures and the speculation as to what she would do," said the comptroller's attorney, M. Cristina Gutierrez. "There are no circumstances, even if the criminal charges were dropped tomorrow, that she could ever return to her duties."
Mrs. McLean's retirement would end her rise in Baltimore politics. It also would force the City Council to call a special session to select a replacement.
"In such a case, we would act promptly," said council President Mary Pat Clarke. "Certainly, that's the tenor of the constituent communications we have been getting."
Retirement also could provide new health benefits to allow the comptroller -- who tried to commit suicide in April -- to continue treatment for depression at Sheppard and Enoch Pratt Hospital.
Mrs. McLean, 50, has been despondent and under psychiatric care since her career unraveled over the winter amid allegations that she stole more than $25,000 by having a fictitious employee on her payroll. She also is accused of trying to arrange for a $1 million city lease of the former headquarters of the travel agency she owned with her husband, James.
Her trial, originally scheduled to begin this month, has been postponed until September. Mrs. McLean, on leave from the comptroller's office, has pleaded innocent.
As an elected official with at least 16 years of service, she would qualify for a $21,200 annual pension, 40 percent of her $53,000 salary.
Ms. Gutierrez said she believes the comptroller has as much as 20 years of service because she was a District Court commissioner. Because the pension plan provides for 2.5 percent pay for every year of service, that would entitle Mrs. McLean to a $26,500 pension.
Complete records were unavailable yesterday.
Another retirement benefit is the option to sign up for new medical insurance, which the comptroller needs because the hospitalization coverage under her existing city plan has expired, her lawyer said.
That coverage ran out more than two months ago, but Sheppard Pratt allowed her to stay because she pledged "securities" as collateral toward bills now exceeding $10,000, Ms. Gutierrez said. She would not say whether the collateral is the McLeans' luxury condominium in North Baltimore, a Delaware beach home or other assets.
"The financial situation in regard to her critical need for psychiatric benefits is extreme," she said.
Two weeks ago, Mrs. McLean's trial was delayed after she threatened on the third morning of hearings to commit suicide. The hearings were marked by wrangling between her lawyers and Baltimore Circuit Judge Elsbeth L. Bothe.
Mrs. McLean slumped in her chair during the hearings, at times weeping and shaking while her lawyers argued with the judge over whether she was emotionally strong enough to stand trial.
On the last day of the pretrial proceedings, she told her psychiatrist, "Let me be judged by God. At least he won't be biased and maybe will forgive me."
Hours after she was involuntarily committed as a state mental patient, five council members met with the Circuit Court's administrative judge and the judge who presides over the court's criminal docket. The trial was then postponed.
Mrs. McLean's retirement request must be approved by the seven-member board of the Elected Officials' Retirement System. Ernest J. Glinka, administrator of the city pension system, said state law prohibits him from disclosing whether the board will consider Mrs. McLean's request at a special meeting at 10 a.m. Monday.
Mrs. McLean meets the city requirements for retirement. Elected officials in Baltimore are permitted to retire on a full pension after 16 years of service, or after only 12 years if they are at least 50 years old, Mr. Glinka said.
Pension could be withdrawn
If Mrs. McLean is convicted after retiring, she could be required to give up her pension and even repay the portion she has received, other than her own contributions.
The city code states that no elected official may receive benefits if "convicted of a job-related offense" punishable by at least six months in jail and a $500 fine. Mrs. McLean is charged with felony theft, which carries a maximum sentence of 15 years in prison and a $1,000 fine.
Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke and City Solicitor Neal M. Janey said in separate interviews that the circumstances under which Mrs. McLean would be required to relinquish her benefits are unclear. Equally unclear is whether Mrs. McLean may withdraw the salary payments that have been held in escrow since she went on leave in December.
Mr. Schmoke said Thursday that he had spoken briefly with Mr. McLean last week about the comptroller's possible retirement.
"Clearly, it would seem to me that one of the things that would be on her mind and her counselors' mind is that in the event that this matter proceeds to trial and she is found guilty, the city laws are pretty severe," the mayor said. "The legal question that's outstanding is what happens if a person is charged but not convicted: Does that person have the rights to various benefits accrued while in office?"
Elected in 1983
In 1983, unknown and unconnected to any political club, Mrs. McLean won a 2nd District seat on the City Council. Four years later, while she and her husband built the successful Four Seas & Seven Winds Inc. travel business, she was re-elected. In 1991, she became the first black woman elected Baltimore's comptroller.
Her political demise has been as highly visible as was her ascent.
Five council members who successfully sought the postponement of her trial two weeks ago said they were motivated by concerns that she was suffering in the public spotlight.
Among the council members who met with the judges was Iris G. Reeves, a 5th District Democrat who has expressed interest in serving as interim comptroller. Mrs. Reeves has the mayor's backing, and her participation prompted some council members speculate that the group's meeting with the judges was part of the political maneuvering over who would replace Mrs. McLean.
Councilman Lawrence A. Bell III, a 4th District Democrat who is another leading candidate for the interim comptroller position, has the support of Mrs. Clarke.