The mayor defended the excursion as a harmless beach getaway by two close friends and their families. She said she didn’t discuss city business on the trip and paid the “common rental rate” to stay at Harris Jones’ vacation home.
“Lisa is a lifelong friend,” Rawlings-Blake said in response to questions from a WBAL-TV reporter at a City Hall news conference. “My family knew her family before I was born. She rents out her property to me and to others. I paid for it.”
The vacation was the latest example of their friendship to come under public scrutiny. Rawlings-Blake officiated at Harris Jones’ wedding in Las Vegas earlier last month. Last year, Harris Jones turned up on a list of people given free tickets by the mayor’s office to 1st Mariner Arena.
An official with a government watchdog group said the lobbyist’s access to the city’s top official is troubling.
“We are concerned that the lines have gotten to be so blurred in this situation,” said Jennifer Bevan-Dangel, the Maryland director for Common Cause. “It’s obviously natural for politicians and lobbyists to be friendly. But given the wedding, given their weekend together, we’re seeing a lobbyist who has access to influence that is so far above what the regular citizen has, it’s concerning.”
Bevan-Dangel said she hopes the mayor will “take a hard look” at the situation, and she said Harris Jones should recuse herself from lobbying the mayor’s office.
“This is a case where a line has been crossed,” Bevan-Dangel said. “I’ve heard from community groups that feel like they can’t be heard. And here’s the lobbyist who represents the developers, and clearly her voice is being heard.”
In an email, Harris Jones said she and Rawlings-Blake have been “friends since childhood.”
“Our children are very close friends,” she said. “Our families went to the beach for that weekend and each family paid their own expenses. ... While I do not usually charge people who visit when I am at the house, Stephanie always insists on paying, as she did for Memorial Day weekend.”
An aide to the mayor said Rawlings-Blake stayed at Harris Jones’ beach house for three nights. The mayor’s office provided a check signed by Rawlings-Blake that showed she paid her friend $400 to rent the property.
“One of the great things about Baltimore is it’s ‘Smalltimore,’ ” Rawlings-Blake said. “When you grow up here, I have friends that are lobbyists, friends that are dentists, friends that unfortunately went the wrong way. I’m blessed to say that I have a lot of successful friends. My prayer is that I can maintain friendships with all of them.”
The beach trip came just days after the mayor officiated the wedding of Harris Jones and her business partner, lobbyist Sean Malone. At a large retail convention in Las Vegas, Harris Jones and Malone were married before about 100 well-wishers, who included some of Maryland’s top government officials.
Malone, a former top aide to Gov. Martin O’Malley, and Jones are among the state's highest-earning lobbyists. Their company, Harris Jones & Malone LLC, represents more organizations doing business with Baltimore city agencies than any other firm.
In Annapolis, Harris Jones earned $942,695 in 2012 lobbying at the state level. In Baltimore, the firm represents large companies including McDonald’s, Verizon, Baltimore Gas and Electric and the developers of the “Superblock” project.
The firm also represented the city’s former speed camera vendor, Xerox State & Local Solutions.
While the firm’s clients frequently win contracts, they don’t always prevail. Last year, the city chose Brekford Corp., a Xerox competitor, to run the speed camera program. Another client, Digicon Corp., on Wednesday lost a $20 million information technology staffing contract to a competitor, TeleCommunication Systems Inc.
Rawlings-Blake was far from the only politician at the couple’s May 21 wedding, which took place during the Global Retail Real Estate Convention, which is sponsored by the International Council of Shopping Centers.
Lt. Gov. Anthony G. Brown, multiple state legislators and a host of State House and City Hall staff members attended. Guests included Maryland Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller, Sens. Catherine Pugh and Joan Carter Conway and Del. Dereck Davis. All are Democrats.
In August, a list released in response to a public records request showed Harris Jones received free 1st Mariner tickets from the mayor’s office to see a concert by Jay-Z and Kanye West and a Harlem Globetrotters game.
Rawlings-Blake said she sees nothing wrong with maintaining a close friendship with Harris Jones. The mayor said she followed all ethics rules and takes “very seriously the responsibility I feel to the people of Baltimore to conduct myself in an ethical way.”
“When I go to a restaurant, I pay the tab, whether it’s a friend at the bar or someone I don’t know,” she said. “When I go to my friend at the dentist, I pay to get my cavities filled. If I go to get my nails done from a friend, I pay her, too.”
City Councilman Robert W. Curran said he was confident the mayor’s relationship with Harris Jones wouldn’t get in the way of her professional duties.
“She knows how to separate her personal life from her job,” he said.
Linda B. “Lu” Pierson, the chairwoman of the city’s ethics board, declined to comment.
City Council President Bernard C. “Jack” Young also declined to comment.