Success swiftly won, soon blighted THE FORTUNES OF JACQUELINE MCLEAN

January 23, 1994|By This article was written and reported by staff writers Kim Clark, JoAnna Daemmrich and Michael Ollove. Staff writer Mary Corey contributed to this article.

After Jacqueline F. McLean's first victory in politics in 1983, reporters asked her about the propriety of using her own money -- lots of it -- to secure herself a seat on the Baltimore City Council.

She smiled sweetly. "He who has the gold," she recited, "makes the rules."

Mrs. McLean, 49, often dared to make the rules.

She did not come from the political machines, so she bypassed them by spending her own money. She wanted her business to succeed, so she used unconventional strategies to win clients. She emphasized her black identity while ignoring the racial boundaries that segregate Baltimore socially and geographically.

For a long while, her boldness served her well, catapulting her from city councilwoman to city comptroller. Many thought the mayoralty was well within reach.

Money was often at the center of Mrs. McLean's considerable ambitions and gave definition to her public image. Her wealth not only created her political career but was its very justification. She forever touted her business success and enveloped herself in its symbols -- stylish clothes, expensive homes and fine jewelry.

Now, as she faces a criminal investigation of her conduct, so much of the identity Mrs. McLean cultivated seems illusory.

She promoted herself as a savvy businesswoman, but ran a company that collapsed. She prided herself on her cool professionalism, yet at times displayed an explosive temper. She went out of her way to tout her honesty, but now is accused of a most brazen deceit.

"It doesn't seem that the person I've known is the same as this person," said state Sen. American Joe Miedusiewski, a candidate for the Democratic nomination for governor who has supported Mrs. McLean politically.

Over the past two months, Mrs. McLean has faced a barrage of questions about her activities and is now under investigation by the state prosecutor. As comptroller, she allegedly sent checks totaling more than $25,000 to what appears to be a nonexistent employee and a bogus organization. Some of the money was deposited in an account Mrs. McLean set up. She's also accused of surreptitiously trying to arrange a lucrative city lease of the former headquarters of her once-successful travel agency.

Having so coveted the spotlight, Mrs. McLean is now in forced retreat; she is on an unpaid leave of absence while a grand jury considers the case against her. Once proud of her political independence, Mrs. McLean has now found herself isolated, pilloried on radio talk shows and bereft even of collegial words of support from fellow politicians.

For the past month, there has been only silence from Mrs. McLean. She declined to comment for this article, and her lawyers, after consulting with her doctor, said last week, "We believe that Mrs. McLean's emotional condition is too fragile for her to conduct any interview or answer any questions."

In her last public comments, at a Dec. 20 news conference, Mrs. McLean complained of the hounding she and her family had endured. She warned that the city would suffer without her. But she said she had to leave.

"Enough is enough," she said, and then slipped away from public view.

Improbable journey

Two years ago, couples in evening dress stood in the ballroom at the Sheraton Inner Harbor when the guest of honor, resplendent in a black taffeta gown, made her triumphant entrance onto the dance floor.

That day Jacqueline McLean had been sworn in as the city's first black comptroller and its first female comptroller. Now she was throwing Baltimore's first comptroller's ball, complete with 19-piece swing band, a gourmet dinner and champagne.

The symbols were all wrong. Here was a city with a dwindling treasury and an office that had to exude parsimony. Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke held his own austere inauguration that same day in an auditorium at City College. But Jacqueline McLean was having nothing of restraint.

She was everywhere that night, flashing her most dazzling smile and bussing the cheeks of businessmen and politicians who had paid $85 to attend the gala. "This is Jackie," she said. "Jackie is going to be out there. This is not going to be an invisible office any longer."

What few knew, though, was how hollow was the image she had so carefully created.

By that night, the travel agency Mrs. McLean had founded with her husband, James, was in shambles, and the couple was fending off its collapse. Mrs. McLean had convinced voters that her business skills best qualified her for the comptroller's office. But by the time she was being sworn in, those credentials were fraying.

If Mrs. McLean's business travails were unknown to most, not much else was known about her either, even as she was assuming the third-highest elected position in Baltimore government.

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