Political pundits take heed: One-time political powerbroker Mary McCarty will never again seek elected office. And she doesn’t want to be a lobbyist, either.
“When you violate the public’s trust, there are consequences, and one consequence is that you should no longer ask the public to trust you in that way,” McCarty told BizPac Review in an exclusive interview. “It was a privilege and an honor to be an elected official for 21 years. At the end, I messed up, and as a result, I do not feel I am a person that should be in public office ever again.”
In March 2011, the 18-year veteran of the Palm Beach County Commission was released from federal prison after serving 22 months of a 42-month sentence for honest services fraud. A whisper campaign about her intentions has been underway ever since, fueled recently by McCarty’s speech before a group of about 30 people at the Dec. 14 meeting of the Delray Beach Chamber of Commerce’s Government Affairs Committee. McCarty began her political career in Delray Beach – her home of 40 years — when she was elected to the City Commission in 1987, at age 32.
The group first invited her to speak a year ago, she said, but it’s taken her this long to work up the courage to accept. During her presentation, she spoke of going from a person of privilege to Prisoner No. 73342-004, reduced to washing dishes at a 1000-woman institution in Bryan, Texas.
Guards whisked McCarty, now 58, off to the Palm Beach County Jail immediately after she pleaded guilty to a single count of honest services fraud for the four acts that constituted her crime:
- Failing to disclose discounted and free hotel rooms on state gift disclosure forms;
- Failing to publicly disclose her relationship with Ocean Properties (the company that provided the hotel rooms) before voting on a county convention center project;
- Lying to federal agents when asked about the hotel stays;
- Voting on bond issues without publicly disclosing that her husband worked for the bond firm on which she was voting.
In addition to the prison sentence and three subsequent years of probation, a judge fined McCarty $375,000 and stripped her of her state pension. She blames no one but herself, she said.
“I knew what I was doing at the time was wrong,” she said. “I thought what I was doing was unethical, but I never in a million years thought I was committing a federal crime. I never knew about honest services fraud, but that ignorance is no excuse. I did what I did, and the consequences are what they are.”
She spent a week in a cold and windowless cell at the county jail, sleeping on a concrete slab with a plastic mattress and using a stainless steel toilet without a seat. She ate only the foods she recognized, she said, limiting her diet to carrots and vanilla pudding. At the end of week one, she had dropped 10 pounds.
From there, McCarty was transported in shackles and belly chains to a Miami facility for processing, then to her final destination in Bryan, 95 miles northwest of Houston.
She found the “self-contained city” clean and organized. Inmates did everything from the cooking and cleaning to landscaping and laundry. A bad knee netted the former commissioner a highly coveted bottom bunk.
The women cherished their allotted single piece of fresh fruit each day (the rejected fruit not suitable to be sold in stores) and paid careful attention to oral hygiene, since the prison dentist would yank bad teeth rather than fill cavities. Everyone wore prison-issued khakis and sneakers.
On the surface, McCarty had little in common with her fellow inmates. A childless University of Florida journalism grad who has been married for 32 years, she may as well have been from another planet. Most of the women at Bryan had children before their 16th birthday and dropped out of high school. The majority committed drug and human trafficking crimes, though McCarty met a number of women imprisoned for Federal Emergency Management fraud during Hurricane Katrina.
After her duty washing dishes, McCarty went on to tutor GED students and then worked in the prison library.
“The experience changed my life,” she recalled. “I learned so many lessons that I needed to learn.”
Those lessons included humility, patience and the consequences of choices. Today, she said she is less judgmental and more forgiving. She has softened.
She also learned who her real friends were.
“When you’re in public life for so long, you really don’t know who cares about you and who’s sucking up,” McCarty said.
She was pleasantly surprised. During her stay more than 1,200 miles from home, McCarty logged 70 visits from friends and loved ones, ranging from her lawn man and siblings to her husband, Kevin, 62, who came monthly after completing his own brief prison term for failing to report his wife’s crimes.
Together, the couple is starting over. Thanks to the support of family, the McCartys were able to keep their homes in Delray Beach and Maine. They are working to repay them, Mary McCarty said.
Kevin McCarty operates Cypress Consulting in Delray Beach. His wife is employed there, too. It’s a modest operation that helps guide businesses, mostly outside Palm Beach County, through the governmental process here. They aren’t getting rich, McCarty said, but they make enough to pay the bills.
Some may mistakenly think the lifelong politician is scheming to return to public life, since many current or hopeful politicians ask for her opinions. And she has plenty of them, she said.
“That has not stopped since I got home,” she said. “I’m not running campaigns. I’m not in the political consulting business. But people – Republicans, Democrats, people in state office, county office, city office, whatever – seek me out for advice and counsel. I don’t call them, they call me.”
McCarty’s heart is still in public service but of a far different variety. She’d like to help federal prisoners with their re-entry to society.
She still has two years of probation left, prohibiting her from having contact with other felons, and the federal justice system would need to OK her involvement.
“I think I would have the experience and empathy necessary because I went through it,” she said. “I had a tremendous support system, and not everybody does. You know how hard it is to find a job when you’re a convicted felon? I might be able to help people get a second chance because of my network.”
In the meantime, McCarty is thankful to be home and begin the rebuilding process. She’s especially grateful for the friends who stood by her.
“I am so blessed,” she said.