Using racism as red herring is unsavory ploy

December 23, 1993|By MICHAEL OLESKER

The city comptroller of Baltimore, Jacqueline McLean, has now begun her leave of absence, during which she will be paid actual money for work she will not actually be doing. Many are offended by this but miss the symmetry. If such a deal was good enough for Michele McCloud, who might not even exist but who still got paid actual money for work she never actually did, then why shouldn't Jacqueline McLean get the same?

Are we poking a little fun at the city's third-highest ranking public official? Well, yes. But McLean makes it so inviting. She calls one news conference to announce she's upset at the various investigations of her -- Boy, there's a shocker -- and to say that she won't have anything to say about various allegations. Then she calls another news conference, where she once again refuses to answer any questions but, not to let the moment slip away, launches little trial balloons about racist motives.

Oh, please.

Jacqueline McLean embarrasses everybody, but particularly herself, by bringing race into this. The city's been through too much, and too many people have worked too hard on real issues of racism, to have anyone open up that wound on such flimsy cause. By injecting it here, she diminishes all legitimate charges of prejudice.

When McLean tried to sneak a fast one past the city's Board of Estimates in October -- failing to tell them of her stake in a Federal Hill building she wanted to lease to the city -- it was a black city solicitor, Neal Janey, who discovered that the lease had a phony address on it, and that it was owned by McLean and her husband.

And it's a mayor named Schmoke, who happens also to be black, who's urged McLean to come clean, because it's his administration that's most wounded by the charges. The mayor wants her to do what reporters want her to do: Answer specific questions. And then everybody can leave her alone, until the next round of discrepancies.

In the meantime, investigators are fielding a stream of telephone calls from City Hall people with various allegations about McLean. Some date to her earliest days as comptroller, when McLean immediately showed problems speaking the truth.

When she bought herself a luxury car -- at city expense -- the day she took office, thus infuriating some taxpayers, she claimed she didn't have a car of her own. In fact, Motor Vehicle Administration records showed three cars listed in her name.

So McLean then told a reporter she'd be paying for the car herself -- until City Hall officials laughed out loud, declaring the bill would naturally have to be paid by the city.

And all of that was just an appetizer. When confronted recently with allegations about the lease arrangement on her Federal Hill building, McLean declared, "Call me stupid," implying a conflict of interest never dawned on her. Stupid is the least of her troubles.

When confronted with the allegations of slipping another one past the Board of Estimates, to send the mystery woman Michele McCloud $22,000 at an address coincidentally occupied McLean's sister's beauty salon, McLean suddenly slips race into the equation.

Now, when the newest allegations surface -- money deposited in bank accounts of a fictitious organization, opened with a forged signature -- McLean's finished talking altogether.

She's making it more complex than it is. If there's a Michele McCloud, let's meet her. If she worked for her money, let's see some evidence. If McLean's really the smart businesswoman she claimed to be when she ran for office, then why claim now to be "stupid?"

The answer is: It beats the other things she's being called. And it doesn't help McLean that her travel agency business was falling apart, and bills were mounting, and the IRS was getting impatient, when she was getting into trouble at City Hall.

Most white-collar legal cases are pretty complex. If you sat through any of the Dale Anderson case, for example, you had to wonder how that federal jury kept its eyes open following the money trail. Joe Alton, Marvin Mandel, same thing. But the McLean allegations are remarkable because they're so easy to follow. Maybe there are explanations for all of them. If so, let's hear them. But let's not hear any of this racism business, because it drags everybody into areas which do not fit here.

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