By Emily J. Minor
The best part about being home is just that, being home. The family room with the soft couch and comforting backyard view.
The sound of car tires on the front driveway.
Her own bed, finally.
And while most things are rather the same — Her beloved dog, Max, is right there under the coffee table. Husband, Kevin, is padding around, somewhere. The whole gang was just over for Easter dinner — in the same breath, everything’s different.
“What matters is the relationship with your family and your friends,” says former Palm Beach County Commissioner Mary McCarty, who just spent 22 months in federal prison for honest services fraud.
“It was a gift to have found that out,” she says.
If there were ever a time to first meet McCarty, it might be now. Once considered to possess two of the sharpest political elbows in town, she seems softer today.
And it’s not just the 40 pounds she lost walking most evenings at the Federal Prison Camp in Bryan, Texas, round and round the outdoor track, the fresh air keeping her company.
“I think I’ll be a better person,” McCarty says. “The best part of my life is yet to happen.”
Released from prison on March 24 — in short, she was sent there for failing to disclose years of free hotel stays, mostly in Key West (including during times when the hotel firm approached the county for their business) and voting on bond business given to her husband’s employer — McCarty’s journey from powerful politico to federal inmate number 73341-004 has been clearly surreal. (So surreal that she once stood on a Miami tarmac shackled, wrist to wrist, ankle to ankle, just admiring the sky.)
If all goes as planned, she’ll be eligible for home custody mid-May. That will mean no more five nights a week at the halfway house. In September, she’ll be eligible for probation.
That’s when the re-invention will really begin.
McCarty says she will never run for office again — right now, she can’t even vote — but would love to run somebody’s campaign.
The former commissioner sat with The Coastal Star inside her home one recent Friday evening. She’s still a federal prisoner, but each weekend she’s allowed to leave the Salvation Army house on Military Trail in West Palm Beach for about 53 hours. On weekends, she’s confined to home and someone from the halfway house calls the McCarty’s landline, willy nilly, day and night, to make sure she’s there.
And she’s always right where she should be.
Isn’t it tempting to take a quick walk? Pop over and say hello to the new neighbors? Zip down and peek at the ocean?
What could it hurt?
“I broke the rules once and I ended up in federal prison,” she says.
There’s no arguing with that.
Some marriages might have gone kerplunk during such tough times. Indeed, Kevin McCarty, 62, served eight months for his knowledge of his wife’s ethics violations. “They say it either destroys your marriage or makes it stronger,” she says.
They’re opting for stronger.
The power couple that met in Fort Lauderdale back in 1977 when she was a cocktail waitress and he was a bartender isn’t much of a power couple right now. Kevin has started consulting work as a strategic corporate planner.
They still own two homes: the coastal Delray Beach house and their home in Maine. McCarty, 56, says they’ve accumulated more than $700,000 in debt.
But they’re still a couple.
In June, they’ll celebrate 31 years.
When The Coastal Star first contacted McCarty to see if she would talk with us, she was reticent. “I’m not really doing interviews,” she said.
But here’s the thing.
If you rise up to become one of the most powerful Republican politicians in South Florida, get way too comfy in your padded chair, break some ethics laws, get caught and go to prison, aren’t you supposed to change? And shouldn’t people know about it?
In her opinion: She’s more patient, more empathetic, less judgmental.
And she’s less controlling — although, she can’t help suggesting that Kevin comb his hair before they sit down for the newspaper picture.
“It’s good to have her home,” he says, smiling.
When she got out in March, McCarty was dropped off at the tiny airport in College Station, Texas.
She stepped from the prison car wearing real clothes. Since she wasn’t considered a flight risk, she would fly home without a federal escort.
Knowing this would be the setup, Kevin had come out so the two of them could fly back to Florida together.
It was the first time they’d been alone, without guards, in 22 months, and he met her in fine form: There he was, a real sight for her sore eyes, with not only a hug but two sausage-egg McGriddles and a caramel latte.
Other travelers could not have known the emotion packed into that one, lousy airport meal.
The nightmare really was starting to end.
Although her life is still ruled by restrictions, some normal privileges are creeping back.
She has a cell phone. She’s allowed to drive. And she’s working for what she says is minimum wage, answering phones and doing light office work for a family friend, Delray Beach lawyer Reeve Bright. She can’t leave the Delray office during the workday, so friends come to her for lunch.
She’s booked well into the month.
“It’s pretty incredible how nice everyone has been to us,” she says.
You don’t go through something like this without bruises, some of them deep, some of them still very sore.
In Palm Beach County, McCarty was the third commissioner in three years to go to prison for honest services fraud. Former Commissioners Tony Masilotti and Warren Newell have completed their sentences.
In McCarty’s case, she says friends she thought would stick by her didn’t. Others came out of nowhere. In Bryan, McCarty always got the most mail.
“It was unbelievable,” she says. “People’s mothers wrote to me.”
And speaking of mothers …
The oldest of six children, McCarty says her fall was especially hard on her own mother, Jeanne Ray, who always pulled herself together quite nicely and visited regularly in Texas.
“What a crazy journey my life has taken,” says McCarty, smiling faintly when she says she’s the family’s first felon. “And the story is still being written.”