The financial connection became clearer today between a wealthy political donor and former Rep. Chris Millis, who secured state funding for a questionable aquarium project that could benefit that donor.
But a timeline of events raises further legal and ethical questions about what at best is an unusual deal.
On Oct. 1, $300,000 was added to the budget bill — passed and ratified earlier this summer — for the planning and permitting of a satellite aquarium at the Blake Farm in Scotts Hill. The 1,300-acre planned mixed-use development of retail, residential, hotels and offices, is only about 30 miles from the long-standing state aquarium at Fort Fisher.
In addition to the aquarium being built with state funds the Department of Natural and Cultural Resources did not request the facility. Nonetheless, the department would be required to run it. The aquarium would focus on shellfish, such as oysters, crabs, clams and shrimp.
Millis had earlier advocated for the appropriation, but resigned on Sept. 15, two weeks before the bill passed, ostensibly to spend more time with his family.
Now, back up three years: Millis, a civil engineer by trade, is connected to Blake’s Farm, LLC and the aquarium project through its registered agent and land developer Raiford Trask III. On Oct. 31, 2014, seven months after Trask announced plans for the project, albeit without mentioning an aquarium, he contributed $1,000 to Millis’ House campaign.
Meanwhile, also in 2014, the civil engineering firm Paramounte, which is Millis’s employer, worked on the 980-acre Lane’s Ferry Project, in Pender County. Lane’s Ferry was developed by a company managed by Heide Trask, Jr, a cousin of Raiford Trask III.
Millis told WRAL earlier this month that he didn’t personally work on the Lane’s Ferry Project. However, it’s arguable that if Paramounte’s finances or reputation benefits from a successful project, the employees would benefit, as well.
Trask told the TV station that he didn’t know Millis’s firm was involved in Lane’s Ferry. While possible, that’s also unlikely, since Paramounte submitted site plans to the Pender County government for the project and was named in media reports.
The Trask family frequently contributes to political candidates of both parties, although most of the money goes to Republicans.
The New Hanover County Democrats filed a 10-page complaint today with the NC Secretary of State’s Lobbying Compliance Division. The complaint names Trask, Millis and Blakes of Scott Hill, LLC. A Democratic Party representative Richard Poole is asking the secretary of state’s office to investigate whether Trask improperly lobbied Millis and his fellow Republican lawmakers Rep. Holly Grange of New Hanover County and Sen. Bill Rabon, who represents four counties, including Pender and New Hanover.
Trask is not listed in the state’s directory of lobbyists.
The complaint also asks if Trask, Rabon, Millis and Grange circumvented state law by directing a sole-source procurement with no public bidding for a state facility. Michele Walker, spokeswoman for DCNR, told Policy Watch last week that bidding on the project will be required to go through a standard Request for Proposals process.
“I’m concerned that developing a new aquarium in Pender County will undermine the patronage and funding of the existing aquarium,” Poole of the New Hanover Democratic Party wrote. “I believe that funds expended on a Pender shellfish aquarium could be better spent elsewhere.”