Lessons of the McLean Mess

December 18, 1993

The widening grand jury investigation by a special prosecutor will determine whether City Comptroller Jacqueline F. McLean committed any criminal offenses in hiding her ownership of an office building that she hoped to lease, under an incorrect address, for $1 million to a municipal agency. Or whether she padded her office payroll. The city's ethics board has hired a lawyer to probe whether her conduct violates conflict of interest rules.

Already it is clear, however, that in trying to sneak the lease agreement past her fellow top officials on the Board of Estimates, Ms. McLean put her own economic interests above her duties to the city and the taxpayers who elected her.

She did so several times. She favored an arrangement under which a city agency would have needlessly left its rent-free quarters for paid space -- hardly a prudent use of taxpayers' money -- and then concealed that it was owned by her own family. In the process, she failed to abstain from votes or declare her conflict of interest.

This means that whatever the outcome of the criminal and ethic probes, she will be under a cloud of suspicion as she handles her public duties.

The ball is now in Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke's court.

He is the one official who, under the City Charter, has the authority to start the process to remove the comptroller. Once Ms. McLean is afforded an opportunity for a hearing, the City Council can fire her by a majority vote for "incompetency, willful neglect of duty or misdemeanor in office."

This is unlikely to happen until there is a resolution of the ethical and legal questions. In the meantime, we urge Mayor Schmoke and City Council President Mary Pat Clarke to take immediate steps to tighten the procedures under which the Board of Estimates operates.

Both the lease incident and Ms. McLean's possible hiring of a ghost worker show that the Board of Estimates' practice of accepting last-minute agenda additions is open to abuse. The board should limit such add-on items to true emergencies.

Ms. Clarke, the board president, and Mayor Schmoke also ought to move to end the distrust that exists between them. The danger of this distrust was exhibited in the McLean lease case. After Ms. Clarke learned about the comptroller's conflict of interest, she quickly and quietly changed her own vote on the matter. But she took no prompt action to inform the mayor or other board members of her move or relate to them the troubling circumstances that prompted her to change her vote.

Ms. Clarke may have covered her own back. But her failure as the board president to alert her colleagues endangered the interests of taxpayers.

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