McLean case keeps City Hall on edge

February 14, 1994|By JoAnna Daemmrich and Kim Clark | JoAnna Daemmrich and Kim Clark,Sun Staff Writers

The calls from angry constituents have slowed, and the

television crews no longer crowd Board of Estimates meetings since Baltimore Comptroller Jacqueline F. McLean took a leave of absence six weeks ago. But life at City Hall has not returned to normal.

The vacuum left by Mrs. McLean's retreat -- in the wake of allegations of misconduct -- continues to roil city politics. Several politicians, including some City Council members, are preparing in case the comptroller's post becomes vacant.

Adding to the tension is the fact that Maryland's prosecutor reconvened the grand jury to hear testimony about Mrs. McLean last week -- after the date by which top city officials had hoped for a resolution.

"I thought that some action was going to be taken by the first week in February," Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke said of grand jury investigation.

"That's always the problem with giving people timetables," he said. "If things slip, anxiety levels can rise."

Mrs. McLean took an unpaid leave Dec. 20 amid an outcry over reports that she sent about $25,000 in city checks to an apparently nonexistent employee and a bogus organization. The checks were mailed to the same address as a hair salon belonging to Mrs. McLean's sister, and some of the money was deposited in a bank account that Mrs. McLean set up.

The grand jury is investigating these accusations and whether the comptroller tried to surreptitiously arrange a lucrative city lease of a building that she and her husband own.

On Thursday, the grand jury reconvened in the McLean case for the first time since Dec. 22, meeting to hear the testimony of Gary Girton, a documents examiner for the state police, and of another investigator.

State Prosecutor Stephen Montanarelli declined to say what he was investigating, or when the grand jury would be finished. The probe "is still going on," he said.

People familiar with the investigation say that the prosecutor has been waiting for bank records that could help track the city money. The investigation has been slowed by the holidays and by bad weather that closed businesses and government offices early on several days, they said.

No new record subpoenas

The grand jury has not subpoenaed any additional city records in the past two months, said City Solicitor Neal M. Janey.

And six of the eight people called to appear before the grand jury in December -- four employees of the comptroller's office, developer Otis Warren Jr. and lobbyist Carolyn Burridge -- said they had not been contacted for any additional testimony in the past month.

Mrs. McLean's sister and brother-in-law, who also appeared before the grand jury, have declined to return reporters' telephone calls or respond to notes left at their salon and home.

The length of the inquiry, which is expected to last a few more weeks, has left some wondering whether the prosecutor is pursuing new indications of wrongdoing. Others, however, see the deliberate pace as a sign of a careful probe.

"I think everybody would like to reach some conclusion here with this thing," said Councilman Wilbur E. "Bill" Cunningham, a 3rd District Democrat who is among a half-dozen council members maneuvering to finish Mrs. McLean's term, should she resign.

"But I take for granted that they're doing a thorough investigation, and this is how long it is taking," he said.

The past two months have given council members and others plenty of time to jockey for position should Mrs. McLean be impeached or forced to resign.

Several have been quietly touting their qualifications to the two people with the most power in the situation -- the mayor and Council President Mary Pat Clarke.

Among them is Councilman Joseph J. DiBlasi, a 6th District Democrat who is a former assistant comptroller of Maryland National Bank and currently co-chairman of the council's budget committee. Mr. DiBlasi said several people have approached him about the post.

DiBlasi 'interested'

"I'm hearing that my name is coming up," he said. "If the administration is interested in me, then I would be interested."

Other candidates include Councilman Anthony J. Ambridge, D-2nd; Councilman Nicholas D. D'Adamo, D-1st; and Joseph T. "Jody" Landers III, a former 3rd District councilman who was defeated in the 1991 comptroller's race by Mrs. McLean.

If Mrs. McLean is forced to leave office before her term expires in 1995, the 19-member council would choose her replacement by majority vote.

The council is free to select someone who is not a member of city government. However, the choice would likely come down to a struggle between the mayor and Mrs. Clarke, both of whom have refused to name any leading contenders.

"It's premature to even talk about such a thing," Mrs. Clarke said. "We have agreed to wait until the state prosecutor has completed his work. I'm satisfied to abide by the agreement."

Still, Mrs. Clarke and other city officials are eager for the McLean controversy to end.

"There's an attitude of 'Let's move on,' " said Councilman Lawrence A. Bell, a 4th District Democrat.

Marie C. Henderson, who handles public information for the comptroller's office, said several people have requested Mrs. McLean's address, to express support.

Mrs. Henderson said the office also has grown weary of the xTC harsh glare of public scrutiny.

"I think everyone would like this to come to an end," she said. "As far as the office of the comptroller, it's bigger than one person. There are a lot of good things going on in the office, and it's overshadowed by this negative, personal thing."

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