Jackie McLean's trials

September 08, 1994

Former City Comptroller Jacqueline F. McLean pleaded guilty last week to stealing thousands in taxpayer dollars. Yesterday, Judge Donald J. Gilmore, a retired Carroll County circuit judge, found her also guilty of misconduct in office by arranging a $1 million municipal lease of the one-time headquarters of her family's now-defunct travel agency.

The next scheduled development is her sentencing in December. After months of legal hijinks and sensational publicity about her mental problems, there will be no trial. Just a deposed high official amid financial and personal ruin.

"I am here today to say publicly that I am the thief I have been brought up to hate and detest," Ms. McLean declared in court last week. "I have felt such a shame and guilt and unworthiness over the last two years that I just wanted to die."

Until Ms. McLean self-destructed, she was a textbook example of how a little goes a long way, when the conditions are right and the candidate spends money and is packaged attractively. Hers was a fascinating political career.

Ms. McLean -- a high-school dropout -- burst on the city political scene quite unexpectedly in 1983, when she won a Second District City Council seat. Even though she started as an unknown, she made herself a household name throughout an expensive television blitz. After her re-election four years later, she set her sights on the comptroller's office.

In a city which is often characterized by racial politics, she was able to gain the support of most black political organizations as well as old-line white clubs, becoming the first female and first African-American to win the office. In the afterglow of that victory, there was talk about her running for mayor.

Yet even as she was sworn in to the comptroller's office, the facade of success Ms. McLean and her husband, James, had built was coming crumbling down. Their nationwide travel agency teetered on the verge of bankruptcy and other investments had gone sour. Barely six months after her election, Ms. McLean put a phantom employee on her payroll so that she would be able to cover such expenses as her personal credit card bills.

By the time she was caught late last year, her marriage was shot. She was in and out of mental hospitals and was reported to be suicidal.

Ms. McLean is not the first city official who has betrayed public trust, nor is she likely to be the last one. Citizens of Baltimore must make sure that the integrity of the office she compromised will be restored in next year's elections. Above all, they must make sure that they know who the candidates they vote for are and what they stand for.

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