Kaplan regrets meeting

June 15, 1994|By Jay Apperson | Jay Apperson,Sun Staff Writer Sun staff writer JoAnna Daemmrich contributed to this article.

Having been subjected to what he termed "very vicious" criticism, Baltimore's top judge said yesterday that he regrets his decision to meet with politicians to discuss Baltimore Comptroller Jacqueline F. McLean's criminal case.

Although maintaining that no ethical bounds were crossed in the meeting Friday in his chambers, Joseph H. H. Kaplan, administrative judge of the Baltimore Circuit Court, agreed that his decision to receive five members of the City Council created RTC a troubling appearance.

"If I had it to do over again, I wouldn't have extended that courtesy," Judge Kaplan said. "I could have or should have said, 'See you later' or 'Please leave the courthouse.'

". . . At the time, my courteous nature overcame . . . my thinking process as to what the implications of their visit were, what the perception of their visit would be. It didn't give a good appearance."

Meanwhile, the head of Baltimore's ethics commission said yesterday that the controversy underscored the need to clarify the sometimes murky relationships between the executive, legislative and judicial branches of government.

"It appears there is an event here on which there is substantial disagreement on the propriety of conduct," said Alan R. Yuspeh, an attorney who is chairman of the five-member ethics board. "I thought a reasonable question one might ask is whether there is ample clarity of the appropriate forms of interaction between elected officials and other city government."

After the council members met Friday with Judge Kaplan and with Joseph P. McCurdy Jr., the judge in charge of the court's criminal docket, Mrs. McLean's trial on charges of theft and official misconduct was postponed until September. Both judges said the council members made no requests, and both said the postponement was a certainty by the time of the meeting because the comptroller had been involuntarily committed as a state mental patient earlier in the day.

The judges said the council members limited their remarks to concerns over whether Mrs. McLean should be forced to go to trial despite her mental state and whether she was being discriminated against because she is a black woman. They also said the acrimonious pretrial proceedings were threatening to divide the community.

Judge Kaplan said council members made matters worse by providing conflicting versions of the circumstances leading to the meeting. Councilwoman Iris G. Reeves, D-5th, denied meeting with the judges.

"I do not know why certain of them made the statements they made," he said. "There was nothing secret about the whole thing. That's what bothered me."

Judge McCurdy said last night, "I still think there was nothing wrong with what [the council members] did," but he said that the denials added an "aura of question" to the meeting.

The judges defended the meeting as proper, but other judges and some members of the City Council criticized it for having the appearance of a political power play. The City Council approves the Circuit Court's operating budget, and Judge Kaplan is running for re-election this year.

Mrs. McLean is charged with stealing more than $25,000 in public money and with trying to arrange a $1 million city lease for the one-time headquarters of a travel agency she owned. The comptroller, who attempted to suicide in April, has been hospitalized for depression for nearly five months.

Judge Kaplan said he agreed to help try to broker a plea bargain in the case before he received a phone call Friday mornning from Vera P. Hall, council vice president and the head of the Maryland Democratic Party, requesting a meeting. He said he had become concerned about the courtroom sparring between Judge Elsbeth Bothe and Mrs. McLean's lawyers, William H. Murphy Jr. and M. Cristina Gutierrez.

He said that Mrs. Hall told him that she and four or five community leaders wanted to meet on the matter and to discuss a planned demonstration, and that he was surprised when the group turned out to include five council members.

"The idea was for me to tell them why there wasn't a double standard and why it wasn't a rush to justice and to convince them not to demonstrate," Judge Kaplan said.

Later, the judges met with lawyers in the case in search of a plea agreement. Mrs. McLean's lawyers are believed to be weighing an offer that would allow Judge McCurdy to sentence her to anything from probation to up to a year in jail in exchange for a guilty plea.

Judge McCurdy said that the council members, in a separate meeting, might have helped persuade the McLean lawyers to renew efforts to reach a plea agreement.

Judge Kaplan said the matter has caused him "untold grief" in the form of "very vicious" phone calls.

"One of them said, 'Was it money or votes?' One said, 'You've disgraced yourself,' " Judge Kaplan said.

"One said, 'I always thought there were only two honest officials in the city, you and Schmoke, and now I think there's only one.' "

Council President Mary Pat Clarke, who called the council delegation's mission "most improper and unfortunate," contacted Mr. Yuspeh yesterday morning to discuss her concerns over the appearance of politics invading the courthouse. Mr. Yuspeh said the city's ethics law is narrowly confined to financial conflicts of interest but that the turn of events could provide the basis for a civics lesson.

"The lesson here is there are generic problems regarding the separation of powers," Mrs. Clarke said. "I think the best way for us to address this would be along the lines of maybe developing a set of norms to deal with our relationship with both the executive and judiciary branches. We need to use this as an occasion to really look ahead."

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