By Thomas R. Collins
After years of taking on her fellow county commissioners, calling her own shots, blazing her own trail, Mary McCarty was the picture of obedience.
More than punctual to her first court appearance on federal corruption charges — she got there two hours and 10 minutes early, perhaps to avoid clicking cameras and microphone-thrusting reporters — McCarty sat in the front row of the courtroom. Then she was told the row was reserved, and the former commissioner retreated to the back row.
McCarty, who had won respect from many leaders of the coastal towns for her help in their times of need, has become another drumbeat in the cadence of corruption, following on the forced resignations and imprisonment of County Commissioners Tony Masilotti and Warren Newell and West Palm Beach City Commissioners Ray Liberti and Jim Exline. Now McCarty faces a possible five years in federal prison for allegedly steering bond business to her husband’s companies and accepting free lodging from a developer.
McCarty, who pleaded not guilty, faces a possible five years in federal prison. Her next court appearance hasn’t been scheduled, but her husband has pleaded guilty and will be sentenced in late March. In the meantime, the couple is no longer living in their coastal Delray Beach house and have moved out of the city. The judge also allowed them to stay at their house in Maine before sentencing.
The charges have left coastal town officials who looked to her for leadership trying to reconcile the McCarty they knew during her 18 years as commissioner with the McCarty portrayed by federal prosecutors.
“There’s no question that when it came time to try to solve an issue that affected a particular community she was actively involved; so from that perspective she deserves a lot of credit. But that was her job, that’s what she was supposed to do,” Ocean Ridge Mayor Ken Kaleel said. “As a government official, it is betrayal. Because when you have respect for somebody and they breach that trust, if you will, sure it’s a betrayal.”
McCarty, the federal charging documents say, secretly plotted to award bond deals that financially enriched her and her husband, Kevin McCarty, who represented the firms, including Raymond James and Bear Stearns. Over and over again, she cast votes on those deals, —which, in the end, totaled hundreds of millions in bond money —but disclosed the conflict only occasionally. Once, she left a meeting on purpose to avoid having to disclose a conflict, the documents say.
She also helped engineer bond deals for firms represented by her husband in Delray Beach, the documents say. And she accepted gifts from developers to whom she awarded development deals; the gifts, according to the documents, included free hotel stays in Key West and in Delray Beach at the Marriott, owned by Ocean Properties.
The dissonance brought on by the sight of a once-powerful leader standing before a federal magistrate and seeking mercy is striking, if familiar by now. But McCarty’s history of bombast helped accentuate the effect. She has practically fallen over herself to fall in line.
After each of eight questions by U.S. Magistrate Ann E. Vitunac about whether she understood the ins and outs of her case and the charges, she repeated the refrain, “Yes, Your Honor.”
Asked whether she had any assets outside the United States, she answered, “No.” Then, seconds later, she added, “Your Honor.” At one point, Vitunac called her “McCarthy” — as did the guards downstairs — before correcting the name. When she left the courthouse, McCarty pointed the finger at herself. “This is a course that I set out and I have no one else to blame,” she said.
The new McCarty emerged even before the court hearing. Five days after resigning from office, she sent an extraordinary letter to her former constituents through the local media.
“For the past week or two, it’s as if I have been at my own funeral, and I have to say, it’s not exactly the stuff of dreams. To be honest, my legacy isn’t either. “It’s taken me a while, but I get it. I’m a hypocrite. “By accepting free hotel rooms, rooms in hotels that many of my constituents could never afford to visit, I hurt people. By voting on bond issues that benefited my husband’s employers, I hurt people. By violating my oath of office and failing to provide the honest services due each and every County resident, I hurt people. “Here I sit, in the corner, observing my own funeral, sickened by the fact that I should have gotten it a lot sooner. ”
The drama may not be over. In their filings with the court on the sentencing, prosecutors sometimes trot out additional details of a defendant’s acts.
And, it remains to be seen which public officials and other supporters choose to write letters asking the courts for leniency.
Mayor Bill Koch of Gulf Stream was “shocked” when he heard about McCarty’s resignation. “I’m deeply saddened with something like this because her service to the south county was exceptional, I thought,” he said. Even now, he gives her the benefit of the doubt, saying she most likely didn’t realize, at the time, that she was doing wrong. “I don’t think there was probably any real intent,” he said.
Kaleel takes a tougher line. Credit for doing good as a county commissioner — coming up with money for county roads or hurricane recovery — only goes so far, he said. She never belonged on a “high pedestal.”
“It wasn’t her money, it was taxpayers’ money,” he said. But it’s hard not to feel for her, at least to a degree, he said. “You do have a personal attachment that grows with people, so from a personal standpoint, I feel sorry for her,” he said.
“And for her family, there’s no question.” He said he has a sense that the apology letter isn’t just for show, not just a naked grab for mercy.
“I think she realized she blew it,” Kaleel said. “And I also believe that she is feeling a great deal of remorse over what she did, not only for the deceit on the taxpayers but for breaching her own personal trust or faith. And not everyone feels that. You don’t hear that from everybody, but you certainly get a sense that she felt that.”