Based on what we know so far, there does not appear to be anything illegal about the way Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake has carried on her friendship with City Hall's top lobbyist, Lisa Harris Jones. Strictly speaking, there may not be anything unethical about it either. But it is certainly unwise. Both parties may have good motives, but the situation does damage to the public's trust in government, and it is up to the mayor to find a way to rectify it.
This week, Ms. Rawlings-Blake acknowledged that she and her family spent Memorial Day weekend with Ms. Harris Jones and her family at the lobbyist's beach house. That came shortly after the mayor officiated at the wedding of Ms. Harris Jones and her business partner, Sean Malone, while at a shopping center convention in Las Vegas. Previously, Ms. Harris Jones showed up on the list of the most frequent recipients of complimentary tickets to shows at 1st Mariner Arena. Ms. Harris Jones and Mr. Malone are registered to represent more clients at City Hall than any other lobbyists.
There are a variety of mitigating factors at work. The mayor says she paid $400 in rent to Ms. Harris Jones — which she says is the going rate — for the stay at the beach house. It's not rare for the mayor to preside over a wedding — she plans to do so at a mass ceremony for gay couples at this weekend's Baltimore Pride event — and she was in Las Vegas anyway for a conference that she and many other elected officials from Maryland attend every year. It's not as if the taxpayers footed the bill for the mayor to jet off to a friend's wedding. And Ms. Harris Jones was one of many friends and relatives of the mayor who got free tickets to 1st Mariner shows. That arrangement is ethically problematic, but it is one of long standing. Most previous mayors have doled out their free tickets to the arena in the same way.
Perhaps most crucially, the friendship between Ms. Rawlings-Blake and Ms. Harris Jones long predates either of their professional lives. The Rawlings and Harris families were friends before the two women were born, the mayor says. They have known each other since birth, and their children are now friends. As the mayor sees it, the situation is classic "Smalltimore" — "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."
That's a lovely sentiment, but there's a difference between the mayor being friends with a dentist and the mayor being friends with a lobbyist. Even if Ms. Rawlings-Blake and Ms. Harris Jones don't discuss city business during their social engagements, the public can't help but conclude that Ms. Harris Jones has the mayor's ear in a way that others do not. Companies wishing to do business with the city have to wonder whether a contract with Ms. Harris Jones is the price of admission — the fact that her clients are not always successful notwithstanding. And even if Ms. Rawlings-Blake does not personally discuss client business with Ms. Harris Jones, other members of the administration cannot help but know that the two are close friends. How that may influence decisions of government, overtly or subtly, is impossible to discern.
The case of the mayor and the lobbyist is hardly the only instance in which elected officials in Maryland (and elsewhere) appear too close to those paid to persuade them. The lobbying corps throughout the state is stacked with people who were at one time top aides to various politicians — in particular, the top-paid list in Annapolis often looks like an alumni roster of Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miler's office. Mr. Malone's own trajectory is from friend of Martin O'Malley to aide to the mayor-then-governor and then to lobbyist. The closeness of the political and lobbying spheres was perhaps never on more vivid display than at the Harris Jones-Malone wedding. The mayor may have officiated, but she was hardly the only elected official in attendance, or in the wedding party. Lt. Gov. Anthony G. Brown, Mr. Miller, state Sens. Catherine Pugh and Joan Carter Conway and Del. Dereck Davis were all there. Whether it ever crossed any of the attendees' minds or not, the photos of Ms. Harris Jones and some of the state's power elite in fancy dresses in Las Vegas is marketing gold for the firm.
And that is why the situation should set off alarm bells for the mayor. The relationship, though honestly and honorably derived, has become increasingly asymmetrical as Ms. Rawlings-Blake's career has progressed. It's nobody's fault, but the fact is that women's closeness now diminishes the mayor's standing and enhances the lobbyist's. There is no law prohibiting the mayor from being friends with a lobbyist, and there probably shouldn't be. As is often said in these situations, you can't legislate common sense. But by maintaining the same close, personal relationship she might have had if she were not mayor and Ms. Harris Jones were not a lobbyist, Ms. Rawlings-Blake is displaying a real lack of it. If Ms. Harris Jones is unwilling to recuse herself from lobbying at City Hall, then the mayor should put their friendship on hold until after she leaves office. We understand that would be a wrenching decision for the mayor to make, but it is what the city she leads deserves.Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun