Council members could take lessons from old politico

June 16, 1994|By MICHAEL OLESKER

Long ago, boys and girls, long before the clumsy bid to loosen some judicial strings on behalf of Jacqueline McLean, the great political puppeteer of Baltimore was a man named James H. "Jack" Pollack, whose ability to fix a mere parking ticket gives us fresh perspective on certain City Council members who shouldn't be allowed to cross the street by themselves.

Last week, five of them -- and let's put their names in the newspaper again: Vera Hall, Iris Reeves, Sheila Dixon, Carl Stokes and Melvin Stukes -- walked from City Hall to Judge Joseph H. H. Kaplan's chambers in hopes of changing the course of McLean's criminal case.

There is a phrase for this: obstruction of justice. There is some attempt now, by Judge Kaplan, to admit that he should have handled things differently and that, at best, it created an unfortunate appearance of deal-making and that, given a second thought, he'd have told the council members, "See you later," or "Please leave the courthouse."

Those are Kaplan's specific words. Council members, meanwhile, are maintaining they did nothing wrong, but acting as if they did. Not only were they clumsy enough to barge into this case, but they were disorganized enough never to have gotten their stories straight.

We never talked to any judge, says one. Never went into his chambers, says another. Only went to the courthouse to discuss housing department classifications, says a third. I'm not talking, says a fourth.

Not to be minimized is their underlying claim of sensitivity: They were in the courthouse only because they were thinking about poor Jackie, the city comptroller who was charged with stealing from the city and then had an emotional breakdown before she could stand trial.

Feeling bad for McLean is understandable. Her life is currently in ruins. Attempting to take the criminal justice process into your own hands is a different story -- particularly when it's done by allegedly sophisticated City Council members, who happen to control the Circuit Court's operating budget, and they're approaching its administrative judge, who happens to be running for re-election.

At best, it gives the look of an attempted fix. At worst, it really is. If it didn't have the appearance of a fix, the council members wouldn't have done it stealthily and wouldn't have lied about it when confronted by reporters.

Jacqueline McLean's in trouble today not only because of the criminal charges against her, but for events outside her control. Her attorneys staged a courtroom performance that fell just short of grand opera. McLean's emotions worsened through the ordeal. She could have spent 30 days in jail on a plea bargain and put this business behind her by now, but instead finds herself under suicide watch in a mental ward.

And, just when you think matters can't get tawdrier, we have politicians, who shouldn't approach a judge to discuss a parking ticket, injecting themselves into the proceedings.

For historical perspective on such practice, consider a brief memory of Jack Pollack, the legendary political kingmaker around here who, over a half-century, danced around the various laws and never saw a deal he couldn't manipulate.

Those belonging to Pollack's Trenton Democratic Club tended not to be idealists. They joined his political organization to have Jack take care of them. Monday nights, many would ask Pollack to fix their parking tickets. They'd have to go to court afterward, but the deal was clear: Jack would see a few judges, massage them and put in the fix ahead of time.

One Monday night, a club member was fuming. Pollack hadn't beaten the ticket for him. "If he can't take care of me," the guy said, "then I'm quitting." The story got repeated to Pollack later that night by one of his cronies.

"You're naive," Pollack said. "I never take care of those tickets. If the guy gets found innocent, I just take the credit. If he's guilty, I just tell them the judge wouldn't listen. Eight out of 10 guys are gonna beat 'em on their own anyway."

Lesson for the day: If Jack Pollack, a man who played fast and loose with the various rules of politics and law, wouldn't approach a judge on a parking ticket, what was going through the minds of five City Council people when they approached a judge on a criminal case involving the third highest-ranking member of city government?

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