McLean: Guilty as Charged

September 03, 1994

Former City Comptroller Jacqueline F. McLean's guilty plea to felony charges yesterday ends -- for now -- an unusual, meteoric career in city politics. In her own words, she is "the thief I was brought up to hate and detest." There will be no trial. All that remains is sentencing.

By admitting to having hired a no-show employee, Ms. McLean did the intelligent thing. Evidence against her was overwhelming. It is doubtful that either her health -- she has been in a psychiatric hospital since an apparent suicide attempt in April -- or her family's precarious financial condition would have allowed a full-fledged trial.

Although evidence collected against Ms. McLean suggests a pattern of calculated deception, details of the roots of her undoing remain sketchy. For example, the public still does not know what prompted her in September 1992 -- barely half a year after her inauguration as the first female and African-American comptroller -- to add a bogus employee to her staff.

But, then, Jackie McLean remains a mystery even to most of those who thought they knew her professionally or socially. Details that usually are known about public people -- such as schools and personal background -- remain elusive in her case. She apparently never finished high school, yet at the peak of her career she was talked about as a possible future mayor of Baltimore City.

Ms. McLean escaped much of the early scrutiny ordinarily given to an office-seeker because she burst on the political scene quite unexpectedly. She was an unknown -- and unconnected to any political club -- when she decided run for a Second District City Council seat in 1983.

Few took her seriously in the beginning. But as the campaign progressed, she vastly outspent all the other candidates, particularly in television advertising. After her re-election, she established a successful political career that hid whatever gaps existed in her resume.

Ms. McLean and her husband, James, projected an image that had wide appeal among Baltimoreans. Young and good-looking, they operated a seemingly successful, expanding national travel agency. For those seeking African-American role models, they appeared to have it all.

Ms. McLean's career peaked with her election as city comptroller in 1991. Her family's travel business, now defunct, was in deep trouble at the time, but the public did not know it.

The McLean tragedy underscores how important it is to find a qualified and unblemished permanent replacement for her in next year's election. The integrity of the office must be fully re-established, the staff overhauled.

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