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Urban: State report offers few Amistad funding details

By Joe Wojtas

Publication: The Day

Published June 19. 2013 4:00AM
Representative to meet with DECD commissioner Thursday, may call for audit of ship's spending

State Rep. Diana Urban, D-North Stonington, who is pressuring the state Department of Economic Development to detail how Amistad America has spent $8 million in state taxpayer money, said she is not satisfied with the accounting the DECD provided her this week.

"This does not answer my questions by any stretch of the imagination," Urban said this week. "It makes me think that they feel $8 million is chump change and they don't need to pay attention to it."

She called the information she received not only "really, really incomplete" but "worrisome." For example, she said, it lists gross salary payments of almost $1.1 million from 2008 to 2012 but does not say who was paid what. During some of that time, the ship was inactive.

"It's very disturbing to me that they again have given me an incomplete report," she said.

The DECD accounting only relates to the $2.5 million in state money given to Amistad America since 2008, even though the ship received state money for more than a decade before that.

Urban, who plans to meet with DECD Commissioner Catherine Smith on Thursday, has said she would call for a state audit of the money given to Amistad America if she does not get the data she has requested. Also on Thursday, Urban is set to meet with one of the original crew members of Amistad who is forming a group to investigate what legal action would be needed for the state to take possession of the ship.

In a cover letter that accompanied the documents, Smith told Urban she had attached "the data rich, data informed account of the monies spent on the Amistad Project," which she had requested.

In addition, she offered some general background about three of the "potentially transformative partnerships" that Amistad America is working on but did not say how much money they could generate for the financially struggling organization. The Day reported details of those deals last week. They include using the ship to film a 10-part NBC mini-series about the pirate Blackbeard in Puerto Rico later this year. Smith said the details of the "lucrative" agreement are confidential at this time.

"As always, DECD maintains a strong commitment to providing all information on economic development deals which involve taxpayers dollars in a timely manner," she wrote.

Urban, who has pressed state agencies for years to implement a results-based budgeting method in which programs continue to be funded only if data shows they are effective, said DECD has been the agency that has most opposed her efforts.

In the case of the schooner Amistad, she said, DECD and Amistad America should show exactly how much money was spent, how it was spent, whether the ship was doing what it was designed to do and whether anyone is better off because of the expenditure.

"No way are those questions answered by this data," she said.

Almost all of the documents and narratives given to Urban relate to how Amistad America spent $400,000 in bonding money approved for ship repairs.

How the other $2 million in state funds it received from 2008-12 was spent is detailed in a half-page graph that breaks out areas such as outside professional services, space rental, travel, marketing, printing and "misc."

The latter totals more than $700,000 but does not provide additional details. The document says "misc" is "vessel repair and Ops, Program Development Insurance, admin."

Amistad America lost its tax-exempt status after failing to file tax returns for three years. It is appealing that ruling.

The ship, which was built at Mystic Seaport with state funding, is in Maine, where it is being repaired and operated by the Maine-based Ocean Classroom Foundation.

Greg Belanger, the executive director of Amistad America who is also the director of the Ocean Classroom Foundation, has said the ship will be in New London next month to announce a partnership with Love 146, a New Haven nonprofit that raises awareness of human trafficking, which Belanger said will expand the ship's message.

The schooner, 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.

DECD plans to make payments totaling $359,000 a year to Amistad America over the next two years.

DECD has said its "findings paint a positive picture ... of a struggling organization finally starting to turn the corner in achieving financial stability." Belanger said that all of the state money that has been given to the ship has been spent wisely.

j.wojtas@theday.com

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