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Ethics complaint questions legality of Pender Aquarium

A state budget line item for the Pender Aquarium triggered Richard Poole, an attorney and chairman of the New Hanover County Democratic Party, to file an official complaint on Oct. 30 regarding the appropriation’s legality.

The complaint was filed online Oct. 30 with the lobbying division of the Secretary of State’s Office. On Oct. 31, the letter was sent through mail to other investigative bodies such as the Pender County District Attorney’s Office and the State Bureau of Investigation.

It mentions developer Raiford Trask, state Senator Bill Rabon, state Representative Holly Grange, and former state Representative Chris Millis. The three legislators had previously requested a state appropriation involving six figures for a new state aquarium to be built on Black Farm in Pender County.

According to Trask, who is a campaign donor to both North Carolina Republicans and Democrats, the Pender Aquarium was his idea. Although not a lot of details are known about the project, Trask said that the aquarium will focus on shellfish aquaculture.

There was some discussion on who would cover the cost of actual construction. However, the initial plan indicates that Trask is leasing the building or the land that the aquarium will sit on to the state while developing residential and commercial spaces around the area.

Initially, plans to use government money were ignored but in early October, the budget was changed as the project would no longer be under study, and the design process started. A budget of $300,000 was then requested for design and permits, despite the $254,000 actual availability.

The state Department of Natural and Cultural Resources, however, said that no such funding had been requested.

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

It is still unclear what measures investigators are going to take. No comments have been made by concerned parties.

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