October 31, 2017/Press

ICYMI NC GOP Elected Officials, Donors Named in Complaint Around Fishy Aquarium Deal

WRAL: Complaint questions legality of state aquarium project
By Travis Fain
October 31, 2017

RALEIGH, N.C. — A state budget line item for an aquarium at a private development triggered a formal complaint this week from a Democrat who questions the appropriation’s legality.

Richard Poole, an attorney and chairman of the New Hanover County Democratic Party, said he filed the complaint online Monday evening with the lobbying division of the Secretary of State’s Office. It goes in the mail Tuesday, Poole said, to other potential investigative bodies, including the Pender County District Attorney’s Office and the State Bureau of Investigation.

The complaint mentions developer Raiford Trask, state Sen. Bill Rabon,R-Brunswick, state Rep. Holly Grange, R-New Hanover, and former state Rep. Chris Millis, R-Pender, by name. The three legislators have said they requested a six-figure appropriation earlier this year for a new state aquarium at Blake Farm, a large mixed-use project Trask is building in Pender County.

Trask, long a generous campaign donor to North Carolina Republicans and Democrats alike, has said the aquarium was his idea and that it will focus on shellfish aquaculture. Details appear to be unwritten, and there is some disagreement between the players as to who would cover actual construction costs, but }the plan seems to be for Trask to lease the building or the land it sits on back to the state, developing homes and commercial districts around it.

Plans to use state dollars for the project initially ran under the radar in the budget, but }questions arose earlier this month when the budget was tweaked, clarifying the project wouldn’t just be studied, it would be designed. There’s no indication the state reviewed other potential locations, and the state Department of Natural and Cultural Resources, which operates North Carolina’s four existing aquariums, said it never requested the funding.

The budget simply states that $300,000 is allocated to design and permit an aquarium at Blake Farm. The actual amount available is about $254,000, according to legislative budget writers, though, with the discrepancy due to an error in budget documents.

Rabon, Millis and Grange pushed for state spending that “directly benefits a favored real estate developer with budgeted tax dollars, and raises numerous questions under North Carolina law,” Poole’s complaint states.

“The questions deserve to be addressed by the appropriate governmental agencies, including the North Carolina Ethics Commission, Secretary of State, Attorney General, Governor’s Office, SBI, Wake County District Attorney and Pender County District Attorney,” it states.

Efforts to reach Rabon, Millis and Grange by telephone and email were not successful Monday evening or Tuesday morning. Trask is out of the country, according to his office.

The complaint questions whether Trask and Millis, who resigned unexpectedly from the legislature in September, violated state lobbying regulations by pushing for the appropriation and without registering as lobbyists. It also questions whether legislators circumvented state law by “directing a sole-source procurement with no public bidding or consultation with the Department of Administration,” which generally oversees state buildings.

The complaint doesn’t make allegations but suggests questions for regulators and law enforcement to ask, based largely on media coverage the aquarium plan generated over the last month.

“I didn’t want to get out ahead of the facts,” Poole said Tuesday. “I think it would diminish the effectiveness of the complaint. But it’s interesting. There’s a lot there for them to look at.”

It’s unclear what actions investigators could take. A call to the Secretary of State’s Office Tuesday wasn’t immediately returned, and other authorities have not yet received Poole’s complaint.

The complaint also gets into Millis’ job as a civil engineer at Paramounte Engineering in Wilmington. Poole cites an Oct. 15 piece on portcitydaily.comwhich indicates that Paramounte Engineering told Pender County officials that, if the Blake Farm development is approved, land will be donated for a county park. This suggests a business relationship between Blake Farm and Paramounte, Poole wrote, raising conflict of interest concerns.

That report appears to be in error, though. Paramounte apparently was referring to a separate development also mentioned in the article. Millis said earlier this month that neither he nor Paramounte works with Trask.

The firm does work with Trask’s cousin, C. Heide Trask Jr., on a separate Pender County project called Lane’s Ferry Landing. Millis said he’s not involved with that project and that he hasn’t worked on any of Heide Trask’s projects.

Read the full article here.

Port City Daily: State senators, representatives and Wilmington developer named in ethics complaint over Pender Aquarium
By Benjamin Schachtman
October 31, 2017

PENDER COUNTY — Several state representatives and a Wilmington developer have been named in an ethics complaint that alleges bid-rigging, undocumented lobbying and antitrust violations in the planning of a satellite North Carolina State Aquarium on private land.

The complaint, filed today by New Hanover County Democratic Party Chair Richard Poole, names North Carolina Senator Bill Rabon, Representative Holly Grange, former Representative Chris Millis, and Wilmington-based developer Raiford Trask III, president of the Trask Land Company. Poole also filed a similar complaint with the North Carolina Secretary of State.

According to the complaint, Trask sought help from Rabon and Millis to introduce language into the 2017-2018 budget that would provide $300,000 to plan a satellite aquarium at Blake Farm, a massive 1300-acre development first announced by Track Land Co. in April of 2014.

After Millis’ abrupt retirement at the end of September, the budget was amended – with the help of Representative Holly Grange – to change “planning” to a more specific plan to “collaborate with Blake Farms to design and permit the building housing the satellite aquarium area.”

What the ethics complaint alleges

The ethics complaint alleges that both the initial language and the stronger modified version “favored a real estate developer (Trask) with budgeted tax dollars,” in essence providing Trask with an anchor tenant for his project at taxpayer expense. The complaint cites Neel Lattimore, communications director for the state’s Department of Natural and Cultural Resources (DNCR), which oversees the state’s aquariums, who said that a state facility on private developer land would be unusual, and that there are currently no other aquariums on private land.

The ethics complaint also questions the unusual way the satellite aquarium plan came about, in that the process skipped several key steps including requests for bids (from different developers) and studies on the needs for and feasibility of such a project.

“There is no evidence that the State of North Carolina issued an RFP (request for bids) for this project,” the complaint states, adding, “the State Budget Office did not sumbit it as part of the State Capital Plan. The DNCR did not request the project. The Aquarium Board did not request the project.”

According to the complaint, the aquarium project was “initiated solely by Raiford Trask and Representative Millis.” The complaint also cites the absence of a study on the need for the specific vision for the Pender County satellite aquarium. Trask had stated that the aquarium would feature shellfish but the complaint contends that “there have been no studies of the feasiblity or public appetite for an aquarium focused on Pender County shellfish.”

The complaint asks “did Trask, Rabon and Milis circumvent State law” in their actions. It also asks several questions about lobbying regulations, including whether alleged behavior by Trask or Millis constitute unregistered lobbying behavior, as well as whether Trask’s campaign contributions to Millis and others helped garner their help in arranging the aquarium project.

Read the full article online here.