McLean scandal is turning into a political vendetta

May 06, 1994|By Garland L. Thompson

Washington -- BEING away from a place can give you a different view from the one that seemed so familiar. A year's sojourn in 1992 in Kansas teaching journalism and law and lecturing to young entrepreneurs in Kansas City, Mo., then a departure last year for a new job gave me a needed change of pace.

Even before I left Baltimore, the disquiet of some people in Baltimore over the style of the city's new comptroller, Jacqueline McLean, was making waves. Those waves apparently continued I strolled onto campus at the University of Kansas.

First there was the gossip over Ms. McLean's inaugural ball. Nobody dug up any financial improprieties or wanton wastage of taxpayer dollars but the story still provided many local commentators with grist for the opinion mill.

Next came the infamous "Mercury episode." Why had she caused the city to spend $20,000 on a new car? Didn't she know the city faced a shrinking budget? Did it have to have a cellular phone and -- gasp! -- a tape deck as well? Why all this luxury, when Hyman Pressman got along for years without it?

Mrs. McLean said she needed the car because she didn't have one, the reports said. But Motor Vehicle Administration records showed three titles with her name on them. "Aha! What kind of watchdog can she be?" skeptics wondered.

Oh, come on. Shouldn't the city's No. 3 official expect to use a reasonably up-to-date city car? Equipping it with a mobile phone, in the 1990s, seems reasonable, too. Cities today expect high officials to be in constant touch. And most cars come with tape decks.

A $20,000 purchase is .00001 percent of the city's nearly $2 billion annual budget. In Kansas, that didn't seem to be such a big deal to me.

Then earlier this year I learned of the serious charges of impropriety leveled against her. She was accused of a fast shuffle on a real-estate deal and paying a no-show employee. Those are charges that, if proven, can send Big Wheels to the Big House.

But mainly I was saddened. It's always painful to watch somebody self-destruct, especially a bright, ambitious person with legitimate achievements. And Mrs. McLean's acumen was undeniable in pushing through a minority set-aside law and fighting for it after the Supreme Court, in Richmond v. Croson, cast doubt on all municipal set-asides. It was her political claim to fame.

Learning of Mrs. McLean's suicide attempt saddened me even more. It also made me pay closer attention to the stories about her and to what black people and others in Baltimore are saying behind the scenes.

What many say is that the Jackie McLean saga has turned into a soap opera that drags on and on without any new developments that justify continued coverage. Was it necessary, they ask, to rehash the 1983 election campaign in 1994? (Mrs. McLean "bought" her council seat, it is said, using her own money to pay for a big-league media campaign.)

Frank Lautenberg once used his own money to defeat Millicent Fenwick, a highly regarded representative, for the U.S. Senate seat in New Jersey. But no one rehashes that today. John Heinz, scion of one of America's wealthiest families, out-moneyed U.S. Rep. Bill Green in a Pennsylvania Senate race. There are lots of examples. Why pillory Ms. McLean for it?

Another thing that troubles even people like City Council President Mary Pat Clarke, who first spotted the McLeans' conflict of interest in leasing their building to the city, is the continual re-rehashing of the story -- with a wide net thrown out to snare anyone who may have been possibly connected to Mrs. McLean.

Is developer Otis Warren under suspicion for something? One might think so from the way his political contributions to Ms. McLean's campaign and his interest in buying her family's Federal Hill building have been scrutinized.

Is Nate Chapman guilty of anything besides enduring the normal ups and downs of an investment brokerage firm in the 1990s? Some of the coverage looks to many in the black community like a witch-hunt.

For example, Frank DeFilippo's Jan. 6 column in the The Evening Sun commented that Ms. McLean's campaign finance records are "a case study of money in motion." Yet as Mr. DeFilippo, a former flack for Marvin Mandel, knows very well, all campaign finance records show money in motion. That's why election officials require them -- to see where the money came from and went. Nothing improper was shown for that campaign. The heavy commentary served mostly as window dressing to support a rehash of old news on the building deal and allegations of a no-show employee.

For blacks, both those who support Ms. McLean and those who do not, her story is troubling enough without the feeling that coverage of it has been turned into a vendetta. Reporting and commentary are not supposed to be the journalistic equivalent of a drive-by shooting, perpetrated mainly to stop all advances by blacks seeking a better deal from the city in which they live and work.

Garland L. Thompson is a former editor of Crisis, the official publication of the NAACP.

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