McLean's constituents were counting on her

December 21, 1993|By WILEY A. HALL

City Comptroller Jacqueline F. McLean says that as the third highest-ranking official in city government, she has played a role that is vital to the welfare of the women and blacks who helped put her into office.

And she is right.

She also claims that she is being hounded from office by a media campaign of misinformation, rumor and gossip.

And, in that, she is wrong.

Mrs. McLean yesterday took a leave of absence with pay from her $53,000-a-year post, saying that the controversies surrounding her have made it all but impossible for her to do her job.

She described the move as a "temporary absence" but from where I sit, it appears possible that Mrs. McLean may never serve as city comptroller again. She may never hold another elected office. She may even go to jail.

But if and when that happens, it will be because the allegations against her were proven beyond a reasonable doubt in a court of law, not because someone was out to get her.

It will be because she made a series of serious errors in judgment -- perhaps in a desperate bid to rescue the failing travel agency that she and her husband owned. It will not be because the media reported those errors in judgment to the public.

Mrs. McLean is accused of attempting to conceal her partial ownership of a building that was about to be leased by the city for $1 million. She also is accused of using city funds to hire a phantom employee to do phantom public relations work. The allegations were first aired in a series of well-documented reports in The Sun and are being investigated by Maryland's special prosecutor, a state grand jury and the city's Board of Ethics.

At a press conference yesterday, Mrs. McLean spoke of the heavy cost she already has had to pay -- and the investigations have barely just begun.

"Words cannot express the pain and suffering the media's techniques and methods have caused me and my family," she said. "Almost every day, media representatives have chased and interrupted us and interfered with our daily lives beyond what was reasonable."

But the truth is, this scandal is not about the media. It is about Mrs. McLean's judgment, her personal integrity.

I have to say that I like and respect Mrs. McLean and I grieve for the undoubted pain she and her family are experiencing. But I also grieve for the women and blacks and other minorities who put her into office.

The tragedy here is that Mrs. McLean appears to have let her constituents down at a time when they needed her the most.

Heading the comptroller's office is not one of the glamorous, high-profile positions in city government, yet the comptroller can have a tangible impact on the quality of life of ordinary people. Unemployment in the black community remains at over 17 percent. When you add those workers who are employed in jobs for which they are over-qualified and those who have stopped trying to find work, the black community may be facing an economic crisis rivaling any since the Great Depression.

The development of viable minority-owned businesses, especially during this difficult economic period, is crucial to the health of the city. Studies have shown that minority-owned enterprises have a greater commitment to minority hiring and promotion than majority-owned enterprises and they are more likely to reinvest part of their profits in minority communities.

As comptroller, Mrs. McLean helped enforce the city ordinance that requires that a percentage of all municipal contracts to go to women, blacks and other minorities. She seemed uniquely well-suited to play this role -- first, because she is black, a woman and a business owner; and second, because Mrs. McLean helped draft the ordinance as a member of the City Council.

Yesterday, Mrs. McLean called attention to the importance of her role: "Our citizens must understand how important it is to have in office people who see the world from a perspective which includes all members of the community."

She is right once again. Unfortunately, her own behavior -- more than anything else -- has diverted our attention from this.

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