Baltimore Comptroller Jacqueline F. McLean retired yesterday, ending a political career marked by a sweeping ascendancy to the city's most powerful circles and a sudden downfall in a corruption scandal.
Mrs. McLean, who remains under the care of a psychiatric hospital, received approval from city pension trustees to step down with full benefits while awaiting trial on fraud and misconduct charges. She qualifies for a pension of $23,850 a year and a new round of medical benefits.
"It is clear there are no circumstances under which she could resume her office," said Mrs. McLean's attorney, M. Cristina Gutierrez. "Even if the criminal case went away, she would be unable to resume public life."
The comptroller's retirement triggers what promises to be an intense contest between two City Council members jockeying to finish her term. Fourth District Councilman Lawrence A. Bell III has the support of council President Mary Pat Clarke, and 5th District Councilwoman Iris G. Reeves has the backing of Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke.
Mrs. Clarke is calling the council back from summer recess at noon Friday to select a successor to Mrs. McLean. A replacement must receive the votes of 10 of the 19 council members.
Political observers point to the competition as a possible preview of next year's mayoral fight, because Mr. Schmoke and Mrs. Clarke have the most power to sway the situation. Mrs. Clarke plans to challenge the mayor in 1995.
Mr. Bell and Mrs. Reeves promised yesterday to restore public confidence in the comptroller's office if selected, but they differed sharply in the approaches they would take.
Mrs. Reeves, a longtime incumbent who co-chairs the council's budget committee, says she is not interested in running for comptroller next year. She touts her experience in city government and ability to get along with the mayor and the council president as an opportunity to bring stability to the office.
The outspoken Mr. Bell, who is known for taking controversial positions, says he has no interest in being a caretaker and would seek a four-year term in 1995. He said he wants to institute reforms, including an audit of all the comptroller's departments.
Mr. Schmoke, while expressing regret over the circumstances under which the indicted comptroller left office, said it is time for the city to move on. At an impromptu news conference in front of City Hall, he affirmed his support for Mrs. Reeves.
"It's certainly sad to see [Mrs. McLean's] career end in this
fashion," Mr. Schmoke said. "Right now I'm just looking to the future. I think Councilwoman Reeves can do an outstanding job as comptroller."
Schmoke administration officials have been lobbying for Mrs. Reeves for weeks. The mayor's political advisers say they want to avoid having a close ally of Mrs. Clarke on the Board of Estimates, the five-member panel that must approve all major city expenditures. Mr. Bell could use the office to try to upstage the mayor, Mr. Schmoke's allies say.
"Councilwoman Reeves has a history that she's a studious person who looks at the issues and votes independently. She wouldn't just sit there mouthing off," said Housing Commissioner Daniel P. Henson III, a confidant of the mayor's.
Deputy Comptroller Shirley Williams, who took over when Mrs. McLean went on a leave of absence in December, has said she does not want to be comptroller. If neither Mrs. Reeves nor Mr. Bell musters 10 votes, Ms. Williams should stay on as acting comptroller, the council president said.
"I'm very anxious to see this sad chapter put behind us and to restore some public confidence in our Board of Estimates," Mrs. Clarke said. "It has been a very traumatic time in city government since last fall, when this began to unfold."
Mrs. McLean, a political unknown when elected to the council in 1983, was the first black woman to rise to comptroller. Her political career unraveled in December amid allegations that she had stolen more than $25,000 by including a fictitious employee called Michele McCloud on her payroll.
Prosecutors accuse her of sending checks, made out to the phony consultant and a nonexistent women's organization, to the address of her sister's hair salon. She also is charged with trying to arrange a $1 million city lease of the former headquarters of the Federal Hill travel agency she owned with her husband, James.
Mrs. McLean has pleaded innocent to the charges.
In April, two months after she was indicted, Mrs. McLean attempted suicide with an overdose of prescription pills and alcohol. She has spent most of the past seven months at Sheppard and Enoch Pratt Hospital, a private mental hospital in Towson.
Mrs. McLean's lawyers, who won a postponement of her trial from June until September, have been negotiating with Sheppard Pratt to continue her treatment for depression for at least two more months.
Mrs. McLean applied to retire mainly to obtain new medical benefits, because the hospitalization coverage under her existing plan had expired, Ms. Gutierrez said.
Mrs. McLean has pledged all of her assets to bills now exceeding $20,000, the lawyer said. The new coverage could offset some expenses because the retirement is retroactive to ,, June 26.
Pension Board Chairman Harry Deitchman said yesterday that under city law, the seven-member panel had no choice but to approve Mrs. McLean's benefits. The board followed the advice of City Solicitor Neal M. Janey, who determined last week that there was no legal basis for withholding the benefits.
In his opinion, Mr. Janey noted that at age 50 and with 18 years of service -- including six years as a District Court commissioner -- Mrs. McLean exceeds the criteria for full retirement. She will receive a pension of 45 percent of her $53,000 salary.
All benefits paid to Mrs. McLean during the first 12 months would be covered by money she has paid into the system, said pension administrator Ernest J. Glinka. She would lose any additional benefits if convicted.
City officials and associates of Mrs. McLean tried to focus on her contributions yesterday as she ended her 11-year tenure at City Hall.
Mrs. McLean, once regarded by many as a symbol of the success of black entrepreneurial women, is known for spearheading a bill in the council guaranteeing a share of city business to companies owned by minorities and women.
As comptroller, she often argued for giving more work to minority businesses.
"This is really a statement of finality, if you will," said state Sen. American Joe Miedusiewski, a Democratic candidate for governor who was a supporter of Mrs. McLean.
Councilman Bell said, "I think the retirement board wanted to bring some closure to the painful ordeal the city has gone through."
Mrs. Reeves said Mrs. McLean "will have her appropriate place in the history books of Baltimore."