Update: On November 28, 2018, the N.C. Board of Elections and Ethics Enforcement dismissed the ethics complaint. The closed-session proceedings remain confidential, according to the notice of dismissal signed by Kim Westbrook Strach, executive director for the Board’s Preliminary Inquiry Panel.
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 at Blake Farm, a development 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 Trask 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.
The complaint adds that these questions “deserve to be addressed by appropriate governmental agencies,” including the state’s Ethics Commission, the State Bureau of Investigation, Attorney General Josh Stein and Secretary of State Elaine Marshall. The latter is likely to be an issue of some contention, as Millis had spearheaded an effort to impeach Marshall over the summer.
In an email, Trask said he was out of the country and, though he offered to answer question about the proposed aquarium, his answers were not received by press time. Emails to State Senator Rabon were not returned, his legislative assistant Paula Fields responded to say “Senator Rabon is unavailable for comment.” A call placed to Millis on Monday was not returned. Holly Grange was not available for comment.
This article will be updated with any new information or comment from any of the stakeholders.
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