AS A LIFE SHATTERS, BALTIMORE OFFICIAL’S THEFT TRIAL DELAYED— (Washington Post)

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Washington Post 

June 11, 1994 

Author: Paul W. Valentine, Washington Post Staff Writer

In this city where combative politics often takes a heavy toll, the destruction of city Comptroller Jacqueline F. McLean’s political life has been especially swift and visible.

The once powerful, stylishly dressed woman with the confident smile, who strode the corridors of City Hall as recently as February, tottered into a Baltimore court this week, a gaunt, vacant-eyed wraith of her former self, too fragile of mind and body, her lawyers said, to face trial on charges of official misconduct and stealing $25,000 in city funds.

Then today just after dawn, police took her in handcuffs from a minimum-security building at a suburban Baltimore mental hospital and placed her in a locked ward on suicide watch after psychiatrists said she had suffered another breakdown, according to McLean’s attorneys.

Hours later, the attorneys obtained a 2 1/2 month delay of McLean’s trial, but only after the trial judge complained that several of McLean’s friends in City Hall had pressured the court’s chief administrative judge to order the postponement.

In better times — before a suicide attempt in April, before being diagnosed with severe depression, before Prozac and other drugs left her emaciated and teetering between extreme anxiety and dead-eyed lethargy — Jackie McLean was a household name here, a stunning symbol of Baltimore’s rising class of black entrepreneurial women.

First, she was a successful travel agency owner. Next, she served two terms on the City Council in the 1980s. In 1991, she was elected city comptroller, Baltimore’s third-highest elected position.

The ebullient, 50-year-old McLean seemed set on a brilliant political career. She even toyed with the idea of running for mayor some day.

Then on Feb. 25, three years into her term as comptroller, she was indicted by the state on charges of stealing more than $25,000 in city funds and using her office to steer a $1 million city lease to a building owned by her family.

Prosecutors said she funneled city payments totaling $25,189 to bank accounts held in two fictitious names ostensibly for “research” and “public relations” work for the city. No work was done, prosecutors said, and McLean pocketed the money.

In addition, she was charged with misusing her position as comptroller to approve a 10-year, $100,000-a-year lease to house the city health department in a south Baltimore building owned by the Four Seas & Seven Winds travel agency that she operated with her husband, James. According to the indictments, Jacqueline McLean failed to disclose her financial interest in the deal when voting its approval last October as a member of two city boards that review lease agreements.

The indictments came after a four-month probe by Maryland State Prosecutor Stephen Montanarelli, whose office investigates corruption allegations against public office holders. If convicted, McLean faces up to 15 years in prison and a $1,000 fine on the $25,000 theft count. There is no maximum penalty limit on the charge of misuse of office.

Defense attorneys won a trial postponement, but only after two days of stormy debate with Circuit Judge Elsbeth L. Bothe earlier this week, during which McLean had to be taken from the courtroom gasping and quivering from what her psychiatrist called an uncontrollable panic attack.

Defense attorneys, in hostile, intense exchanges with Bothe, said that McLean has attempted or threatened suicide at least three times and that her mental state, while predating her criminal case, has been worsened by it. During much of the debate, McLean sat hunched over at the defense table, her husband and daughter, Michelle, 22, watching stoically from the gallery.

Jacqueline McLean alternately sobbed, quivered and pressed her hands to her face as her lawyers wrangled with Bothe over McLean’s ability to withstand the rigors of a three-week trial. “Her condition is fragile. … Anything could push her over the edge,” said defense attorney William H. Murphy.

But Bothe sided with court-appointed psychiatrist Thomas Ogelsby, who testified that McLean, while suffering depression and an anxiety disorder, could undergo trial without further damage. Ogelsby also said McLean did not appear to be malingering. “She’s not going to deteriorate,” Bothe ruled after a marathon hearing that ended at 10:20 p.m. Thursday. The judge said she also agreed with Ogelsby that a speedier trial might even benefit McLean.

McLean, on her own volition, has been hospitalized periodically since January at the nationally known Sheppard and Enoch Pratt mental hospital in suburban Baltimore. The first hospitalization occurred a month before her indictment but while a grand jury was investigating the case and her lawyers were sparring with prosecutors over specific charges.

Psychiatrists moved to commit her involuntarily early today after an incident during the night that officials would not detail. Under an involuntary commitment, a patient cannot leave the hospital at will.

After the involuntary commitment was announced in Bothe’s court this morning, prosecutors withdrew their objection to a trial postponement. “A person can’t be tried when they’re involuntarily committed,” Montanarelli told reporters.

Bothe, however, appeared reluctant to support a postponement. As the lawyers continued arguing, a delegation of six community leaders, including several City Council members, sought a meeting with the chief administrative judge, Joseph H.H. Kaplan, to discuss Bothe’s handling of the case. According to Kaplan, the group “couldn’t understand why the case was being rushed along when {McLean} was in no condition for trial.” He said the group told him the “African American community was very upset about it.” After the meeting, Kaplan said, he met with the prosecutors and defense attorneys, learned of McLean’s involuntary commitment and directed that the trial be postponed. Bothe complained later in court that the maneuver amounted to going “behind my back.”

Circuit Judge Joseph P. McCurdy, who is in charge of criminal cases, issued the postponement order and set Sept. 2 as a “re-arraignment” date when attorneys will reconvene to determine McLean’s mental state and ability to go to trial. Court officials said the attorneys may try to negotiate a guilty plea in the summer, thus avoiding a trial altogether.

Record Number: 583110
Copyright 1994 The Washington Post