Published June 12. 2013 4:00AM
Representative wants to know how nonprofit has spent state money before it gets more
For years, state Rep. Diana Urban has pressed state officials and her colleagues to determine whether a program is working before granting it state funding.
So it's not surprising that the North Stonington Democrat has now turned her attention to Amistad America and is demanding that the state Department of Economic and Community Development justify the continued use of taxpayer money to fund the struggling organization.
But what is puzzling, Urban said Tuesday, is that no other state lawmaker has shown interest in finding out how the organization has spent the $8 million the state has given it over the years, and why DECD plans to continue to make payments - $359,000 a year - to Amistad America even though it failed to file federal tax returns for three years and lost its tax-exempt status.
In addition, the former New Haven-based organization, which no longer has an office or website, has now moved the schooner to Maine, where it is being leased to a sail training organization. The schooner's original mission was to sail to ports around the country to tell the story of the slaves aboard the original Amistad who won their freedom in 1839, but those trips no longer occur. As of Tuesday, the ship was in South Portland, Maine, according to the ship locator on the website of Ocean Classroom Foundation, the sail training organization.
"When I look at this, it ruins everyone's trust in government. They look at this and say, 'Government stinks. It's irresponsible. It's not accountable,'" Urban said.
She sent a letter to DECD Commissioner Catherine Smith on May 30 asking for a line-by-line accounting of how state money has been spent by Amistad America.
Urban sent the letter after DECD told her in a May 29 email that the state had given Amistad America $1,463,784 over the past four years and another $450,000 in bonding for repairs. There were no details on how the money was spent. Urban called the accounting "totally inadequate."
The email said the state made the last payment of $75,000 from the 2013 budget after Amistad America agreed to restore its tax-exempt status and to use the money to complete the audit needed to regain that status.
The DECD email also told Urban that contrary to The Day's reporting of Amistad America's shaky financial status, "Our findings paint a positive picture ... of a struggling organization finally starting to turn the corner in achieving financial stability."
The email pointed to three "potentially transformative partnerships": with Ocean Classroom, with a New Haven nonprofit that raises awareness of human trafficking, and with a television production company. But the email offered no details about the ventures or how much money they would generate for Amistad America.
Urban said Tuesday that she has yet to receive a response from DECD, and if she does not get one within another week, she will call Smith. If DECD does not provide a more detailed accounting of how Amistad America has spent the state money, Urban said, she will ask state auditors to investigate.
Urban said she would like Amistad America to become part of the collection at Mystic Seaport, where it was built and launched in 2000, and where she said it could be properly maintained. If that's not possible, she would like to see "strings attached" to any future funding.
"That way, if someone asks, 'What's going on with the taxpayer money being spent on Amistad?' we can say, 'This is what they're doing,'" Urban said.
She said she realizes she is "treading in dangerous waters" when asking such questions.
"But I've been here for 13 years. I don't care. I'm just trying to ensure there's accountability and transparency. We have to tell people how their money is being spent," she said.
"The ship is telling us, 'We don't have to be accountable. Who cares if we don't file our 990s (IRS forms). We'll still get our money,'" Urban said. "We need to say, 'No. You need to be accountable. This is taxpayers' money you're spending.'"
Urban, who has battled state agencies to implement results-based budgeting with limited success, said a lack of accounting of taxpayer money is commonplace.
"These things happen all over state government with no accountability. We've brought some to light, but there's still many programs where this happens," she said.
She said a culture change is needed on both the state and federal levels to prevent such incidents.
DECD spokesman Jim Watson said Tuesday he hadn't been able to reach the people in his agency who could discuss the Amistad issue. Gov. Dannel P. Malloy's office did not respond to a request for comment. Neither state Sen. Andrew Maynard, D-Stonington, whose district includes Mystic Seaport, nor state Sen. Toni Harp, D-New Haven, could be reached for comment.
Seaport spokesman Dan MacFadden said it was premature to discuss what would happen with the Amistad. He said there have been no talks about the museum acquiring the schooner.