Paving the way for the immediate retirement of Baltimore Comptroller Jacqueline F. McLean, the city's top legal officer has ruled that she is entitled to receive benefits while awaiting her corruption trial.
City Solicitor Neal M. Janey determined yesterday that there is no legal basis for withholding Mrs. McLean's pension unless she is convicted of a crime committed in office.
The pension board should meet as quickly as possible to approve the comptroller's request to retire with full benefits, Mr. Janey wrote in a 30-page opinion. City pension officials were trying yesterday afternoon to arrange a special meeting as early as next week.
Mrs. McLean, who is in Sheppard and Enoch Pratt psychiatric hospital in Towson under suicide watch, qualifies for an annual pension of $23,850 and a new round of medical benefits.
Mr. Janey noted that under city law, the retirement system could recoup any money paid to Mrs. McLean if she is convicted of fraud and official misconduct.
The solicitor also recommended that retirement officials push for changes in the city law to provide for the deferral of benefits to an elected official charged with job-related offenses.
Approval of the comptroller's retirement benefits is likely to bring her political career to a close and create an instant vacancy in the city's third-most-powerful office.
Under the city charter, the City Council selects a successor, who must get the votes of 10 of the 19 council members. That requirement already has set off intense jockeying on behalf of two council members -- one, 5th District Councilwoman Iris G. Reeves, supported by the administration of Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke and the other, 4th District Councilman Lawrence A. Bell III, by City Council President Mary Pat Clarke.
Schmoke administration and campaign officials are lobbying for Mrs. Reeves, who has promised to serve only on an interim
Mr. Schmoke, who was out of town after attending the season opener of Baltimore's Canadian Football League franchise in Toronto, said through his chief of staff yesterday that he hopes "to see this matter resolved as soon as possible."
Mrs. Clarke also was out of town. Her staff said a special council meeting would be called as soon as the comptroller's retirement benefits were granted.
Mrs. McLean, 50, has been despondent and under psychiatric care since allegations over the winter 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 one-time headquarters of her travel agency.
Her trial, originally scheduled to begin last month, has been postponed until September. Mrs. McLean, who went on indefinite leave from the comptroller's office six months ago, has pleaded innocent to the charges.
In April, on one of her brief releases from Sheppard Pratt, the comptroller attempted suicide with a near-fatal overdose of prescription pills and alcohol.
Lawyers for Mrs. McLean said she wants to retire immediately so that she can obtain new health benefits to continue treatment for depression at Sheppard Pratt.
"We're scrambling to do what we can to keep her there," said attorney M. Cristina Gutierrez.
Mrs. McLean's hospitalization coverage under her existing medical plan expired in May. Sheppard Pratt allowed her to stay after she pledged all of her assets toward her bills, which exceed $23,000, Ms. Gutierrez said.
A week ago the seven-member pension board put off a decision on the comptroller's request to retire retroactive to June 26. Board Chairman Harry Deitchman recommended seeking legal advice and made it clear he wanted to avoid any appearance of giving preferential treatment to Mrs. McLean.
The delay in the usually routine retirement process led Ms. Gutierrez to argue that the comptroller was being "unfairly singled out."
In 1991, Mrs. McLean, a former two-term councilwoman, became the first black woman to rise to the comptroller's office.
In his opinion yesterday, Mr. Janey noted that at age 50 and with 18 years of service -- including six years in the state pension system -- Mrs. McLean exceeds the criteria for full retirement. She qualifies for a pension of $23,850 a year, 45 percent of her $53,000 salary.
"It appears that the Retirement System will have little choice but to approve the application for service retirement benefits since the comptroller meets all of the legal requirements for benefits," Mr. Janey wrote. "Nothing in the text of the law authorizes forfeiture of benefits before there is a conviction."
Mr. Janey also said that any benefits paid to Mrs. McLean during the next 12 months would be covered by money she has paid into the system.