Posted: Jan. 23, 2003


By Celia Cohen

Grapevine Political Writer

When Thomas B. Sharp retired from the Delaware Senate last year, he left a little nothing for Karen E. Peterson, the senator who replaced him.

Both Sharp and Peterson are Democrats. Days after the Primary Election in September, when the candidate whom Sharp backed had lost and Peterson won, Sharp drained his legislative roadwork account of $457,716 on a final round of projects before he left office.

Some of those last projects caught Peterson's attention big time. The biggest was $100,000 for improvements to the Fenwick Island Lighthouse. Another was $25,000 to replace a dock at Camp Barnes, a summer camp run by the state police for disadvantaged children near Bethany Beach.

These projects were not exactly in the 9th Senatorial District, a sprawling suburban New Castle County district that stretches from Newark to Newport. They were somewhat closer, however, to the summer home that Sharp has in Fenwick Island in Sussex County.

"Now I have nothing against Camp Barnes or its floating dock, but it's $25,000 of 9th district money," Peterson said. "This is straightforward. The money belongs here."

Peterson also questioned how money that is supposed to be spent on transportation projects could be earmarked for painting and ventilation for a lighthouse or for a new dock -- inside or outside her senatorial district.

Peterson wants some of Sharp's final projects de-authorized, and although she has not been able to do it yet, she still is trying. The problem is that she has stumbled into one of the all-time great legislative scams with a long history of creative accounting.

Today these legislative accounts, like the one Sharp tapped, are known as Community Transportation Funds. It is a relatively new name, replacing the old designation of Suburban Street Money, which came to have such an unsavory connotation that it was changed.

In the bad old days of Suburban Street Money, some of it was directed to pay for air conditioning at a church school, parades, youth sports leagues and an occasional political organization. After federal investigators got interested about two years ago, the rules were tightened to ensure the money was spent on transportation-related projects with certain allowances for parkland.

Within those rules, each of the 21 senators and 41 representatives gets $300,000 a year and largely has a free hand in designating projects.

"There are no geographic limits, as long as they're in Delaware," said Transportation Secretary Nathan Hayward III.

Tom Sharp didn't spend 28 years in the Senate, rising to the top post as president pro tem, without knowing the ins and outs of the roadwork account. It was his money to spend, and he spent it.

"You get all kinds of requests, particularly when you're sitting in the president pro tem seat," Sharp said.

He said he wanted to fix the Fenwick Island lighthouse because it is a state-owned structure that needs to be maintained, even though it is no longer used for navigation. He said he replaced the Camp Barnes dock at the request of a constituent with a child who went to the camp as part of the activities for the Stockley Center, the state's residential care facility near Georgetown for the developmentally disabled.

"I don't know of any project in the 9th Senatorial District that wasn't done," Sharp said.

Hayward, the transportation secretary, said Sharp had the right to spend the money the way he did, and that's the way it is.

"The only person who can stop payment on the check is the person who wrote it," Hayward said. "Imagine your rich uncle writes a check for $457,000 for -- I don't know -- the Cat Society and mails it. Then he gets in his car to go play golf and gets hit by a bus. You're his executor and his beneficiary, and you may not like the Cat Society, but you can't stop payment.

"Your uncle did what he did."

Peterson was unimpressed. "That works if the uncle was spending his own money, but he wasn't," she said.