Comptroller's pay can't be stopped while she's in office, on leave or not

December 23, 1993|By Michael A. Fletcher | Michael A. Fletcher,Staff Writer

Top Baltimore officials made it clear yesterday that they are powerless to stop embattled Comptroller Jacqueline F. McLean from drawing her $53,000-a-year salary while she is on leave pending the outcome of investigations into her conduct.

Spurred by questions from constituents angry that Mrs. McLean is being paid during a leave of absence that began Monday, City Solicitor Neal M. Janey said that the comptroller -- like all city elected officials -- is entitled to unlimited leave time.

"In view of these circumstances, we have concluded that it would be appropriate for the comptroller to be paid while on leave," Mr. Janey said yesterday during the first Board of Estimates meeting since Mrs. McLean's leave began.

The only way to stop Mrs. McLean's pay would be to remove her from office through impeachment. But Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke said he will wait for the completion of investigations by the state special prosecutor and the city Ethics Board before deciding whether to take such a step to remove Mrs. McLean from office.

Under the City Charter, the comptroller may be removed from office by a majority vote of the City Council for "incompetency, willful neglect of duty or misdemeanor in office, upon charges preferred by the mayor."

Mr. Schmoke said he is in no rush to start impeachment proceedings. "The fact that she is not here and has no control of her office helps," he said. "I had a great deal of concern before she decided to take a leave of absence that these charges were having repercussions on city government."

For instance, he said "New York financial institutions" involved in selling city bonds inquired about Mrs. McLean's problems. Mr. Schmoke said they wanted to ensure that any activities by the comptroller's office did not damage the city's fiscal health. "We had to clarify that the comptroller in Baltimore does not have the fiscal control that the office does in New York City," he said.

On Monday, Mrs. McLean said that she was taking an indefinite paid leave of absence. During her leave, Deputy Comptroller Shirley A. Williams is serving as acting comptroller.

While the mayor and council members are content to wait before deciding whether to act to force Mrs. McLean from office, citizens demanding to know why the comptroller is continuing to be paid are flooding city offices with angry telephone calls. "I can't even call into my office when I'm out; the lines are tied up," said Council President Mary Pat Clarke. "Now, the phone calls are 'why is the comptroller being paid?' We try to explain that, as an elected official, she is her own boss."

Since Monday, Mr. Schmoke's office received some 100 phone calls regarding Mrs. McLean, said Clinton R. Coleman, the mayor's press secretary. While a few people complained that the comptroller is being persecuted because she is black, many others questioned why she is still being paid.

"She shouldn't be paid," read a message from one person who called Mr. Schmoke's office. "It seems as though you are agreeing with what she did."

Despite the pressure, Mrs. Clarke agreed that the mayor should wait for the on-going investigations to be completed before deciding whether to attempt to strip Mrs. McLean of her job. "The Baltimore City Council is not pressuring the mayor to forward any charges," she said. "We want to go through the process that has been established."

Mrs. McLean's ability to remain on the public payroll in the face of criminal allegations is far from unprecedented in the annals of Baltimore government.

Then-Council President Walter J. Orlinsky remained in office following his 1982 indictment for taking more than $10,000 in bribes from a Philadelphia firm that won a lucrative sludge-hauling contract. Mr. Orlinsky continued chairing City Council and Board of Estimates meetings until he resigned when he pleaded guilty nearly six months after his indictment. He was sentenced to a six-month prison term.

Then-Councilman John A. Schaefer did not lose his seat in 1975 until after being convicted on conflict-of-interest charges. He was re-elected to his 1st District seat that fall.

In 1969, then-council members Dominic "Mimi" DiPietro and Joseph V. Mach were indicted on charges of taking a $5,000 bribe to back a bill to relax restrictions on teen-agers going to pool halls. The two never left office and were acquitted in 1970.

And then-Comptroller J. Neil McCardell overcame City Council efforts to force him into taking a leave after he was indicted in 1953 on charges of accepting $15,000 in bribes from a construction contractor. Mr. McCardell -- who served when Baltimore's comptroller was the city's chief fiscal officer -- remained in his job after the indictment, and was eventually acquitted.

Mrs. McLean is being investigated for allegedly paying $22,000 over the past 15 months to a mysterious public relations aide who apparently did no work.

The checks were deposited into two bank accounts opened under the name of an apparently fictitious women's organization -- the first of which was set up by the comptroller herself. Maryland's special prosecutor also is looking into allegations that the comptroller steered a city lease this fall to the former headquarters of the travel agency Mrs. McLean built with her husband, James. The pressure of the investigations led her to announce the paid leave Monday.

"If the matter results in charges, then we'll come back to the leave," Mr. Schmoke said. "Her status will change."

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