Baltimore magazine|May 2021
Baltimore is the second most corrupt federal jurisdiction in the country. Can a city with our history be reformed?

IN 1991, THE CITIZENS OF BALTIMORE elected 47-year-old Jacqueline McLean their new comptroller, the first woman ever to hold the city’s third most powerful position. After eight years on the City Council, McLean swept into office in high style, cruising to a resounding win for the open seat following the retirement of colorful, “champion of the little guy” Hyman Pressman, who had served seven terms and 28 years before announcing his retirement. The fashionable co-owner (with her husband) of an apparently successful travel agency, Four Seas & Sevens Winds, Inc., McLean presented as every bit the savvy businesswoman with a large house in Guilford, two vacation homes, and assets valued at more than $1.7 million. Political observers, including her fellow elected officials, felt certain she’d make a strong run for mayor someday. It had been a remarkable ascent. The sky was the limit.

“With Jackie’s smashing victory, it potentially sets her up for bigger and better things in the city,” state Sen. Nathan Irby said after McLean’s big win in the Democratic primary, adding, “. . . she knows how to play. That’s the key to politics.”

McLean had not risen from the east or westside Democratic clubs when she launched her political career in 1983, bypassing the establishment by spending gobs of her own cash on her campaign and TV ads. Her wealth had not only made her candidacy possible but seemed its very basis. She trumpeted her business acumen and captured the public’s imagination with its symbols of success— beautiful homes, smartly tailored clothes, and stylish jewelry. When asked after her first political victory about the seemliness of using her own money, lots of it, to buy herself a seat on the City Council, she’d smiled sweetly, the Baltimore Sun reported, and said, “He who has the gold makes the rules.”

Despite budget troubles, Baltimore’s new fiscal watchdog hosted an $85-a-ticket black-tie affair at the Sheraton Inner Harbor, a see-and-be-seen occasion billed as the First Comptroller’s Inaugural Ball. (Buttoned-down Mayor Kurt Schmoke, citing city layoffs, skipped the gala and went back to work following the afternoon swearing-in.) Earlier that day, McLean had put a brand-new $19,789 Mercury Grand Marquis with a telephone, tape deck, and air conditioning on the taxpayer’s tab, telling reporters she needed the vehicle because she didn’t own car. The MVA later indicated otherwise, noting their records had her registered as the co-owner of three vehicles actually, a BMW and a pair of Cadillac sedans.

Things spiraled downhill from there. The early ’90s recession that helped Bill Clinton win the presidency had taken a chunk out of McLean’s travel empire. She struggled, selling off parts of her business, and then became desperate to maintain appearances and the lifestyle to which she had become accustomed. In late 1993, she took indefinite leave amid a state investigation of financial improprieties, which included steering a $1-million city lease to a building she owned and more than $23,000 in payroll to a fictitious city employee named Michele McCloud. The ethereal Ms. McCloud’s address happened to be the same as the comptroller’s sister’s hair salon.

One of the attorneys the state prosecutor tapped for the McLean investigation—the beleaguered comptroller eventually resigned and was convicted of misconduct in office—was a $6-an-hour former bank fraud investigator who had just graduated night law school at the University of Baltimore. “My first big case,” says Isabel Mercedes Cumming, pointing to the courtroom sketch from the McLean trial that hangs behind her desk in the sixth floor City Hall Office of the Inspector General, which she now leads. “In my experience,” Cumming says, “people who commit corruption, fraud, and accept bribes are sometimes facing a financial setback, but mostly they are people who simply want more. In the juvenile courts, you hear stories of tragic lives. That’s not the case with financial crimes. They’re concerned with keeping up with the Joneses. The Jacqueline McLean case and trial should have been a cautionary tale.” As Baltimoreans know by now, that’s not how things go here.

Years after the McLean case, which had divided and thrown City Hall into turmoil (Sheila Dixon, the future disgraced mayor, was one of several councilmembers who intervened on McLean’s behalf with the judge), Cumming headed up anti-fraud, waste, and corruption offices in Prince George’s County and Washington, D.C. In 2006, she was named international fraud investigator of the year and, at the recommendation of then-City Solicitor Andre Davis, Mayor Catherine Pugh hired Cumming back to Baltimore to fill the city’s long-vacant Inspector General post at the start of 2018. Tellingly, just four reports had been issued the year before and half of the office’s 10 funded positions were vacant when Cumming took over. “I love Baltimore and had applied the last time the position was open,” says Cumming, who graduated from Loch Raven High School and whose city roots run deep. “For me, it was a full-circle moment.” And perhaps more than she bargained for.

“What I remember from interviewing with Mayor Pugh was how happy she was. She told me she’d just closed on a new house that day and it was down the street from where she lived, in Ashburton,” recalls Cumming, who later assisted with the campaign finance and Healthy Holly investigation that brought down the former mayor. She pauses as the now-surreal memory sinks in. She’d soon come to learn that Pugh had used proceeds from the bogus sales of her discredited children’s book to buy her new home. Not to mention, fund her campaign and help swing the election. “She kept saying it was her ‘dream house.’ She was just so happy.”

If, as the saying goes, once an accident, twice a coincidence, three times a pattern, then corruption, waste, and fraud is not just a pattern at City Hall, but practice. The same obviously goes for the city’s police department, which had one of the highest rates of officers who were arrested before the crimes of the Gun Trace Task Force came to light. Former police commissioners Darryl DeSousa and Ed Norris were sent to jail for tax fraud, and also in Norris’ case, misusing police money to fund extra-marital affairs. A third commissioner was fired following allegations of domestic violence. Overshadowed today, a federal investigation of a towing kickback scheme uncovered in 2011 involved more than 60 officers, leading to 16 convictions inside the department.

Similarly, in terms of city politics, corruption has hardly been limited to the high-profile implosions of McLean, Dixon, and Pugh. If only it were so. Former Baltimore State Senator Nathaniel Oaks was convicted of bribery three years ago after a previous theft conviction in the late 1980s while serving in the General Assembly. Former City state Delegate Cheryl Glenn pleaded guilty last year to accepting more than $33,000 in bribes related to bills involving the cannabis industry. Pugh aide Gary Brown, who created $62,000 in false invoices from “sales” of her Healthy Holly children’s book—which went directly to her or were funneled to Pugh’s campaign through straw donors—was convicted after he’d been awarded a state delegate appointment. Then, of course, in March, came the double-whammy news that the FBI was again at City Hall, this time delivering a subpoena to Council President Nick Mosby, who is the subject of a federal investigation with his wife, City State’s Attorney Marilyn Mosby. The grand jury inquiry appears to involve her campaign finances and their federal tax returns. Previously, it was reported a $45,000 lien had been placed against the Mosby’s home because of unpaid taxes. The very nature of a married couple holding two citywide elected offices presented several conflicts of interest from the outset—the Council oversees the State’s Attorney’s Office and the Inspector General’s budgets, for example—and it took just a few months after Nick Mosby’s election for it to blow up. “Disheartening,” a Democratic party insider called the revelation of the FBI investigation. “Another body blow for the city.”

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