WHYY | by Cris Barrish
A new law that was rushed through the Delaware General Assembly on June 30, the final day of the legislative session, could benefit the sponsor’s brother in a commercial development deal.
Now lawmakers are criticizing the familial conflict and a process that skirted the rules governing the legislative process. One said “it just doesn’t smell right.” Another called it an indictment of the so-called Delaware Way of cooperation for the greater public good.
Some lawmakers who supported the measure tell WHYY they want it repealed, and the sponsor, Sen. Charles “Trey” Paradee, now says he will seek to do so in January.
Paradee’s bill authorized Kent County to levy up to a 3% tax on hotel stays. House and Senate leaders brought it up for a vote without a committee hearing where the public can weigh in. Instead lawmakers suspended the rules requiring a hearing, which they often do in the final days of the session.
Kent County Levy Court, the lawmaking body in Delaware’s small middle county, has not yet enacted the surcharge, and now says it will hold off any action until the General Assembly reconsiders the bill in January.
One unusual part of the new law is that the nearly $1 million a year such a tax might generate wouldn’t go to the county treasury, as is customarily done with tax revenues.
Instead the law stipulates that the money would be sent to the privately run DE Turf complex for youth soccer, lacrosse and field hockey. The facility featuring 12 artificial turf fields south of Dover is run by the nonprofit Kent Regional Sports Complex Corporation.
The stated goal of the legislation is to help the sports facility be competitive in the youth sports tournament industry, generating visitors to rural central Delaware and boosting the region’s economy.
The bill passed both the House and Senate with near-unanimous support .
While directing the revenues such a tax might generate to a private entity is uncommon, the Wilmington News Journal recently reported that Paradee’s brother John is also part of a development group planning the Asbury Square hotel, restaurant and shopping complex across the Del. 1 highway from DE Turf.
John Paradee, a prominent Kent County land use lawyer, is also on DE Turf’s volunteer board of directors, according to its tax filings reviewed by WHYY.
The success of Asbury Square is intertwined with that of the sports facility. A brochure being circulated to potential buyers says “Asbury Square is perfectly positioned to accommodate hotels, restaurants and convenience/fuel users to service the increasing traffic related to both transient travelers and sports complex attendees.”
In addition to the controversy over the Paradee brothers, their sister Jacqueline Mette, is also part of Gov. John Carney’s legal team that reviews legislation. Carney’s office wouldn’t comment on its scrutiny of the legislation before he signed it into law in mid-July.
John Paradee told WHYY he had no comment.
Paradee laments lack of time to weigh ‘potential conflicts’
Charles “Trey” Paradee has been in the Delaware General Assembly since 2012, when he won a seat in the state House. He served three two-year terms before being elected to the state Senate in 2018. He lists his profession as financial adviser.
Sen. Paradee recently told the newspaper he had “no idea’’ of his brother’s role in Asbury Square. That remark is at odds with what the lawmaker told the paper in a 2014 article, in which Paradee was quoted as saying he was surprised by his John Paradee’s involvement in the proposed project.
Sen. Paradee did not respond to multiple requests by WHYY to discuss his actions.
But in a lengthy Facebook post Thursday Paradee wrote that he had no underhanded intent in sponsoring the bill, which he said he did only after DE Turf officials approached him in late June. He insisted he didn’t know his brother was on the sports facility’s board.
DE Turf officials did not respond to WHYY’s requests for comment.
Added Paradee: “I wish there had been more time for me to carefully consider the legislation and potential conflicts, but my decision was made in haste and based solely on assurances” that Kent County officials supported the measure.
Nevertheless, Paradee wrote that he would seek to remove DE Turf as the beneficiary when the General Assembly reconvenes in January.
He also urged Kent County lawmakers to hold off on imposing the tax until state legislators decide how to proceed. If they decide to enact the tax and designated the revenue to DE Turf, “that will be their choice and their choice alone.”
Later Thursday, Kent County Levy Court removed a discussion of the hotel tax from its agenda for a meeting next week, and a spokesman said it would first wait for the General Assembly to act.
‘It just doesn’t taste right. It doesn’t smell right’
The revelations about the Paradees disturbs Republican state Sen. Dave Lawson, who represents much of Kent County.
“I did know he was on the board and I didn’t have a problem with that,” Lawson told WHYY about John Paradee’s association with the turf complex.
“But I had no idea there were investments involved and other things going on. My concern would have been the conflict of interest there. It just doesn’t taste right. It doesn’t smell right.”
Had he known that Paradee sponsored a bill that could help his brother, Lawson said, “I probably would not have voted for it.”
Democratic state Sen. Laura Sturgeon of Brandywine Hundred in New Castle County said that as a first-year legislator she trusted the judgment of her Kent County colleagues, who were united in support of the tax.
She said the message from Sen. Paradee and others was, “We need it for Kent County. Kent County is struggling economically. Please support it.”
Sturgeon admits being perplexed by the money going to Delaware Turf, saying she wondered if it was “a company that sells sod” until she was told it held sports tournaments for local and traveling teams
“I was told the complex was key to Dover economic development and would lead to more visitors, more tourism, potentially development of more hotels and it was going to have this ripple effect throughout Kent County,’’ she said.
Sturgeon said she doesn’t know whether Sen. Paradee acted out of “nefarious” intent, but acknowledged “the optics are bad and they are only getting worse when we find out there’s another sibling who works for the governor and looks over legislation.”
As for negating the bill, Surgeon said that “if people think it’s no longer needed or wanted or it smells bad,’’ she would support that effort.
‘You are in the middle of a desert or a nuclear waste site’
Democratic state Rep. John Kowalko of Newark agrees the bill should be rescinded but said he also failed in his review of the legislation.
Because it was introduced on June 25 and not presented to lawmakers until hours before adjournment on June 30, Kowalko said he only read the synopsis — not the language of the one-page bill.
The one-sentence synopsis only mentioned that the bill authorized the hotel tax. The full bill, however, specified that the money would go to the group that runs the sports complex.
“It came the last day of the session. There wasn’t a lot of familiarity I had with this bill,’’ Kowalko said. “These are almost commonplace authorizations for a taxing authority, especially something like a hotel surcharge tax or whatever it’s called, so I didn’t think other than that.”
Kowalko said the revelations about the Paradees illustrate what often bothers him about legislating in a tiny state full of incestuous ties.
He called the situation a sad commentary on the so-called Delaware Way, which has long been promoted as the process of political leaders from both parties coming together and compromising to benefit state residents.
“The Delaware Way is not a cooperative, a cordial group of compromising elected officials,’’ Kowalko told WHYY. “The Delaware Way is a pathway where power begets power and power gets to keep power.”
He said efforts to put more transparency and honor into the legislative process are often futile.
“You take a step forward in the netherworld of good government,’’ Kowalko said, “and then you look around and see you are in the middle of a desert or a nuclear waste site.”
Sen. Paradee disputes ‘notion of a grand conspiracy’
Paradee wrote in his Facebook post that “it is time to end the smear campaign against my family” and “the notion of a grand conspiracy between my siblings and I.”
His post acknowledged, however, that he and his siblings’ “work responsibilities occasionally collide in this small state and even smaller county.”
He said the lodging tax was only proposed to him for sponsorship after legislative leaders didn’t want to do it the way Republican Sen. Colin Bonini had proposed. Bonini, whose district includes the sports facility, had wanted to include it in epilogue language of the state’s capital budget.
Bonini said Thursday he didn’t mind having the measure done as a separate bill instead of the way he had initially sought.
Paradee’s statement said DE Turf board members had told him in April that they had “commitments” from four of the seven Levy Court commissioners for the tax dedicated to the group.
The post stressed, however, that DE Turf officials only approached him for sponsorship in late June “because in order to get a bill on the agenda with time running out, you need a respected member of the majority party as the primary sponsor.”
Democrats control the Senate 12-9.
Paradee noted that of the 62 members of the General Assembly, six Democrats and four Republicans were co-sponsors.
He added: “As hard as this might be for some to believe, my brother and I rarely discuss our work. When we do find an opportunity to chat, our conversations focus on our children, our mother’s health, and just about anything but work and board meetings.
“I was not aware that he was a member of the DE Turf’s volunteer board,’’ wrote Paradee, who added that his brother is not legally permitted to discuss the work he does for clients.
“I categorically reject the false narrative that my family plotted to pass this bill,” the senator wrote.