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Amistad's TV plans raise questions

By Joe Wojtas

Publication: The Day

Published 06/15/2013 12:00 AM
Updated 06/15/2013 11:22 PM
Urban: What's the link to Blackbeard, and where's all the money?

One of the "potentially transformative partnerships" that the state Department of Economic and Community Development has said could help financially troubled Amistad America regain stability is to use it to film an NBC series about the infamous pirate Blackbeard.

The Portland (Maine) Press Herald reported in its Friday edition that a captain with Ocean Classroom Foundation in Damariscotta, Maine, which now operates the Mystic Seaport-built schooner, said it will be sailing to Puerto Rico in August for the filming.

According to NBC and the Hollywood Reporter, two-time Oscar nominated actor John Malkovich is set to star in the drama "Crossbones," which will have 10 episodes. The story, which is based on the novel "The Republic of Pirates," takes place in 1715 New Providence, the Bahamian island that was once a pirate stronghold and today is home to the tourist destination of Nassau. The original Amistad and its African captives who won their freedom in 1839 sailed more than a century after Blackbeard.

The filming was criticized Friday by State Rep. Diana Urban, D-North Stonington, who has pressed DECD to detail exactly how Amistad America has spent the $8 million in state taxpayer money that it has received for the construction, maintenance, programming and operation of the vessel.

So far she has not received an answer and said she plans to ask state auditors to investigate if she gets "the runaround" from DECD Commissioner Catherine Smith on Monday.

"The last time I checked, the Amistad was not a pirate ship and Blackbeard was not African American," Urban said. "There's no connection with why we put all this money into this ship."

Greg Belanger, executive director of Amistad America and Ocean Classroom Foundation, confirmed Friday that the ship would be used for up to six months of filming of a miniseries and possibly another production. But he said he could not discuss the details of the deal because of his promise not to do so until a July announcement.

Until then, Belanger said, he could not say how much money the filming could generate for the ship, which he said costs about $1 million a year to run. Despite Urban's criticism that pirates have nothing to do with the Amistad story, Belanger said pirate ships were the first place Africans were able to achieve freedom and equality with their crew mates.

State Attorney General George Jepsen had told Amistad America that he expected audited financial reports and proof that it has applied for reinstatement of its nonprofit status by the end of this week.

Tax status an issue

Late Friday afternoon, Jepsen's office issued a statement stating that during multiple conferences this week with the attorney for Amistad America and officials with DECD, the attorney general learned that Amistad America does not agree with the IRS decision to terminate its tax-exempt status and is asking the IRS to review its decision. Amistad America lost its tax-exempt status after failing to file tax returns for three years.

The attorney general's office said it is satisfied Amistad America is "acting within its right and in a timely manner to seek this review." The office also clarified that it did not anticipate receiving audited financial statements on Friday but that its inquiry was to ensure that Amistad America acted expeditiously to provide its auditors with the necessary information to complete audited financial statements. It said Amistad America has shown it has provided those documents to its accountants.

Jepsen's office said it would continue to monitor Amistad America's activities to ensure it meets all state and federal filing requirements.

The schooner is now in a Portland, Maine, shipyard undergoing repairs and is scheduled to travel to New London at the beginning of July, Belanger said.

The schooner, which was launched in 2000, originally sailed to ports around the country to tell the story of the Amistad captives who were freed in 1839. But it hasn't done that for several years. It is no longer based in New Haven, has no office or website, and its board is inactive.

Despite that, however, the DECD gave the ship $1.9 million over the past four years, plans to make payments totaling $359,000 a year to Amistad America over the next two years and has made payments this year despite the IRS questions.

'Positive picture'

DECD recently told Urban that contrary to The Day's reporting of Amistad America's financial status, "Our findings paint a positive picture ... of a struggling organization finally starting to turn the corner in achieving financial stability."

It said there are three "potentially transformative partnerships" with Ocean Classroom, a New-Haven nonprofit that raises awareness of human trafficking, and a television production company. It offered no details about the ventures or how much money they would generate for Amistad America.

But on Friday Belanger did discuss some aspects of the potential partnerships. He said the contract between Amistad America and Ocean Classroom Foundation was signed in November 2012 and expires in July 2014. It calls for Ocean Classroom to maintain, operate and staff the ship, which he called a costly endeavor while Amistad America pays $5,000 per month for insurance and provides the educational programming for the ship. The two organizations split revenue in half.

He said the deal allowed the Amistad to get the repairs it needed to be ready for the filming, which he said otherwise would not have been possible. He said the agreement also makes it a priority that the ship have a presence in Connecticut and Long Island Sound from Memorial Day to Labor Day. "We take our role as a goodwill ambassador to the state very seriously," he said.

Belanger said he plans to step down July 1 as executive director of Amistad America but will remain as head of Ocean Classroom. He said that had been the plan for some time but he had to wait to find a replacement.

Belanger said the third partnership is with Love146, a New Haven group that works to raise awareness of human trafficking. A formal announcement of the partnership is slated for 10 a.m. July 6 at Amistad Pier in New London.

Belanger said the partnership will help the Amistad promote a contemporary message along with the historical one it has told for the past decade as it traveled up and down the East Coast. He said the addition of the human-trafficking story will increase the appeal of the ship to visitors.

Prudent spending?

Belanger said that all the state money that has been given to the ship has been spent wisely, adding that every year he submitted a narrative to DECD that discussed the activity of the ship. It did not include an itemized accounting of how the money was spent, though.

The submission of a "narrative" angered Urban, who has pressed DECD and other state agencies to show data that prove their programs are successful in order to be funded each year. She said DECD has consistently fought that effort.

Belanger said it was particularly difficult when there was a 10-month delay in state funding because of state budget problems. "We worked so hard," he said. "People have skipped paychecks because they believed in the boat and its mission. We could have given up and closed. But we didn't want to let it fail. That's why it's so hurtful what's going on."

That was a reference to the questions being raised by Urban, who opposes giving Amistad America any more money until questions about how the money has been spent are answered.

With the exception of State Sen. Andrew Maynard, D-Stonington, who said this week he supports Urban's efforts, state legislators have been silent on the Amistad issue. This includes State Sen. Toni Harp of New Haven, where the Amistad was originally homeported. Gov. Dannel P. Malloy's office has also not responded to a questions about Amistad America.

"The Amistad was an amazing effort to shine light on the beginning of the abolitionist movement, especially for children and students. It's important to our heritage," Urban said. "I hope my African-American colleagues will step forward and start asking questions as well."

j.wojtas@theday.com

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