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Interim city solicitor pays rent to powerful lobbyist's firm

Nothing about the unassuming, three-story brick townhouse at 2423 Maryland Ave. suggests its status as one of Baltimore's most politically connected addresses.

But former and current mayors, influential lobbyists, a campaign strategist, powerful contractors and city government's highest-ranking lawyer all orbit the property in one way or another.

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Powerful lawyer and lobbyist, Lisa Harris Jones, owns the building, which houses the law firm she runs with her husband, Sean Malone, a former top aide for ex-Gov. and ex-Mayor Martin O'Malley.

Former Mayor Sheila Dixon works a floor up at the Maryland Minority Contractors Association, a group led by Pless Jones Sr., who owns one of city government's biggest contractors and is Harris Jones' ex-husband and a client of her firm. Jones, Harris Jones and Malone are all campaign contributors to Mayor Catherine E. Pugh.

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Pless Jones also backed former Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake, who officiated at the 2013 Harris Jones-Malone wedding in Las Vegas attended by Pugh and some of the state's most powerful politicians.

One person keeps a foot in both City Hall and 2423 Maryland Ave.: Baltimore government's top attorney, David E. Ralph.

The interim city solicitor has paid rent to Harris Jones for a decade to use her firm's phone number and Maryland Avenue address for his private legal practice.

Although government ethics officials say Ralph is not violating any rules, political observers worry about the potential for a conflict and say taxpayers need to be aware of the intersecting spheres of power.

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It's a "cozy clubhouse," said Jennifer Bevan-Dangel, executive director of Common Cause Maryland.

Ralph sits on the city's five-member spending board that approves all city contracts, including for some of Harris Jones & Malone clients. He occasionally disclosed his law firm's address in city ethics forms but never reported paying $250 a month in rent over the past decade to Harris Jones' firm. Regulations do not require such a disclosure.

Officials are required to report two types of relationships with companies that lobby before or are regulated by city agencies: They must disclose if they hold a paid position with such businesses and if they are indebted to a lobbyist. Rent does not qualify as debt, officials said.

Ralph told The Sun he has paid Harris Jones's firm to manage his practice's phone calls and mail, a "tenant" arrangement that Rawlings-Blake said she was comfortable with. Through a spokesman, Pugh expressed no concerns about the arrangement.

"It isn't a conflict," Ralph said. "I'm paying for a service from her firm. So I don't know why I would do any favors for her. I'm sure you'll never find any kind of favoritism whatsoever no matter how hard you search. There isn't any."

Like Rawlings-Blake, Ralph said he and Harris Jones have been longtime friends, a relationship that started before she was a lobbyist when they worked as attorneys at two different firms.

Speaking for Harris Jones, Malone said in an email that Harris Jones and Ralph have "spotless ethical backgrounds" and all of the companies are separate entities.

"This is the way Baltimore operates," said Matthew Crenson, a local political expert at the Johns Hopkins University. "It's a cluster of people in and around city government who are all tied together."

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