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Amistad's trip to Puerto Rico during hurricane season angers lawmaker

By Joe Wojtas

Publication: The Day

Published 08/20/2013 12:00 AM
Updated 08/20/2013 12:15 AM
Urban says she was assured ship would not leave for months

Two months ago, when she learned that the schooner Amistad planned to sail to Puerto Rico for the filming of an NBC miniseries, state Rep. Diana Urban thought she had extracted a promise from a high-ranking state Department of Economic Development official that the ship would not make the trip until after hurricane season ends late this year.

Urban, who has been pushing state officials to account for how Amistad America has spent the more than $8 million in state taxpayer money it has received, is worried about the risk to the state's investment in the ship since its bowsprit recently needed costly repairs.

Urban said DECD deputy Kip Bergstrom told her that the state had a memorandum of understanding with Amistad America that the ship would not go to Puerto Rico until later this year.

But last week, Urban learned the ship had already departed for Puerto Rico after Amistad America Executive Director Hanifa Washington declined an invitation to have the schooner attend the Taste of Mystic event Sept. 6-8.

An angry Urban is now questioning why Bergstrom told her there was a memorandum of understanding and would get it to her, when one did not exist.

"I don't like to be jerked around. Their story has now changed," she said. "I just regret I didn't get it in writing."

Bergstrom said Monday that when he spoke to Urban in June there appeared to be a change in the schedule so that the four months of filming, initially set to start in September, would not have begun until December.

But, he said, that changed when the film company, Northeast Entertainment, decided to stay with the original contracted schedule, which runs from September to December.

Amistad America is being paid $250,000 for use of the ship to film an NBC miniseries about the pirate Blackbeard starring John Malkovich.

Washington said Monday that the Amistad departed New Haven on July 30 and is now in Bermuda. It is slated to arrive in San Juan, Puerto Rico, the first week in September and will then move to the former Roosevelt Roads Naval Station, which she said has a protected harbor with two sets of breakwaters and solid piers capable of holding naval ships 50 times the size and weight of Amistad.

"This location will provide maximum security and safety for the vessel for the duration of the filming," which she said will run through January.

After the filming, the Amistad is scheduled to sail back up the Eastern Seaboard with stops in ports including Key West, Savannah, Charleston, Washington, Baltimore, Philadelphia, New York and New Haven while hosting a 10-week program for Connecticut and New England youth.

Washington said next summer the ship will be involved in four months of programming in and around Connecticut, something it could not do this year because of the film contract.

Urban has successfully pushed the state to investigate how the organization, under former executive director Greg Belanger, spent the $8 million it received from the state over the past 15 years. Amistad America also is seeking to regain its nonprofit status, which it lost after failing to file tax returns for three consecutive years. At times, the organization has struggled to find money to keep operating.

Urban said that if Amistad America could not get out of the contract, DECD should have told her that. She added she understands the organization needs the revenue from the filming.

"I'm not out to destroy the Amistad. That's not my point. But I want accountability," she said.

j.wojtas@theday.com

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