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Amistad still sails some troubled waters

By David Collins

Publication: The Day

Published May 10. 2013 4:00AM

Where in the world is the Amistad?

It turns out it's at a dock in Charleston, S.C., at the moment. But it took me the better part of two days to figure that out. I also learned that the future for the Amistad, starting with its next port of call, remains kind of sketchy.

My problem locating the ship, which was last seen in Connecticut last summer, around the time of OpSail in New London, began because the Amistad's web page, the one to which you are directed from the state's tourism site, has gone dark.

The website failure, though, pales next to the fact that the organization that was given the ship by the state of Connecticut has lost its Internal Revenue Service nonprofit status because it failed to file tax returns for three consecutive years, according to Guidestar, the charitable organization that tracks tax returns for nonprofits.

The last return on file for Amistad America Inc. is for 2008-09.

When you search for Amistad America on guidestar.org, a red warning in capital letters appears to say that its tax-exempt status has been revoked. Further investigation is recommended, since donations to the organization are no longer deductible.

This made me wonder about the status of payments by the state to the organization, which, over the years, have totaled many millions of dollars.

For the state's fiscal year 2012, a period in which the ship was largely out of commission, moored at a dock at Mystic Seaport, $359,777 was paid to Amistad America. The ship was in the budget for $359,776 for fiscal year 2013, including a final payment of about $75,000, due in the next few weeks.

The governor's newest proposed budget includes another $359,000 for Amistad America.

A spokesman for the state Department of Economic and Community Development, which oversees the grant money for Amistad, said Thursday afternoon, after I asked about Amistad America's lack of tax returns, that the last payment of $75,000 will be held back until the issue is clarified.

I also checked with the Connecticut attorney general's office about payments made by the state to a group that has lost its tax-exempt status and was told the office is making an inquiry about Amistad America.

Amistad America Chief Executive Officer Greg Belanger acknowledged Thursday that the tax-exempt status has been revoked. He said it is due to some kind of snag with the IRS, which he said he will work on resolving, seeking an expedited reinstatement.

Belanger said he filed the 2008-09 return last summer, and that he had been told by accountants that, with extensions, the organization's next tax filing deadline is Aug. 15.

Belanger told me Thursday that Amistad is in Charleston, on its way north from the Caribbean. He said Wednesday he didn't know exactly where it was, that it was somewhere off the East Coast and expected to stop in Charleston.

He said Wednesday it may or may not stop in Philadelphia for a marine festival at the end of this month.

Then it needs to go to a shipyard in New England for bottom painting, annual maintenance and a Coast Guard inspection. The shipyard has not been selected yet, Belanger said, even though the ship has already begun its trip north.

Amistad is expected to be in Connecticut for part of the summer, Belanger said, including a visit to Sailfest in New London.

The lack of tax returns seems to be a sign of general disarray in the Amistad America organization.

The ship is now being operated by a sail training organization based in Maine, Ocean Classroom, which runs other tall ships.

Belanger is employed by Ocean Classroom as executive director. He acknowledged he is now on the payroll of both organizations, though he said his pay from Amistad America is intermittent, due to the organization's continuing money problems.

The 2008-09 tax return for Amistad America shows him receiving a salary of $122,860, plus another $14,000 in other compensation.

Amistad America, even though it receives hundreds of thousands of dollars in Connecticut funding each year, does not have an office in the state. The address the state uses on its paperwork, and which appears on the last tax return Amistad America filed, is actually a home office in Hamden for an accountant that once did work for the organization, Belanger said.

When I asked Belanger for the names of board members of Amistad America, he could only name one, the chairwoman, Fredrica Gray. He said he wasn't in his office and could not remember the names of others.

Gray told me she got involved with the Amistad when she worked for Phoenix Insurance, which was a sponsor of the boat when it was built at Mystic Seaport and launched in 2000. She is now retired.

I still had not located the Amistad when I reached Gray Wednesday, and she told me she didn't know where it was. She knew it was in the Caribbean for the winter, but she referred me to Belanger for details when I asked her exactly where in the Caribbean.

Gray told me that Amistad has been leased to Ocean Classroom, a characterization Belanger said is wrong. He said the two organizations are sharing resources, like crew, and that Open Classroom is paying some of Amistad's bills.

Gray also acknowledged that the organization has not filed recent tax returns and she blamed that on money shortages. She also blamed the shutdown of the website on money issues.

She said the tax returns will eventually be filed.

"We will account for every penny," she said.

Amistad visited Cuba in 2010 and Belanger said in news accounts at that time that the ship's rigging was damaged on the return trip, requiring $100,000 in repairs. The ship then remained at Mystic Seaport for two years, finally getting underway last summer, visiting Norwich and New London before going to a tall ships event in Canada.

Since there are no tax returns to consult, I asked Belanger how two years of state funding - about $700,000 - were spent during the two years the ship was at the dock in Mystic and not sailing, under a cover for the winter.

He said the ship has a lot of expenses, insurance, staffing and legal costs. Tall ships, he said are expensive to run.

This is the opinion of David Collins.

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