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The Amistad money pit

Published May 16. 2014 4:00AM

The situation grows more absurd with each passing legislative session. The state Department of Economic and Community Development, acting on orders of the state legislature, continues to expend about $360,000 annually on the replica ship Amistad. Year after year, the allocation remains in the budget, even though there isn't any evidence that the ship is helping Connecticut's economy. Instead, the evidence suggests the ship has been spirited away from Connecticut, benefitting other economies.

The original Amistad was the location of an historic slave rebellion off Connecticut's coast. A landmark Supreme Court decision ultimately freed the rebellious men and returned them to Africa.

Connecticut has reasons to be proud of what the Amistad represents. Much of the post-rebellion story took place here. The skilled craftsmen at Mystic Seaport built the replica ship. A non-profit organization, Amistad America, obtained the state subsidy to carry out a mission of education and good will.

Thanks largely to coverage by this newspaper - no one at the state seemed to be paying any attention - the public learned a year ago about some troubling questions surrounding the management of the Amistad.

It was just about a year ago that Day columnist David Collins pointed out that Amistad America had lost its Internal Revenue Service nonprofit status for repeatedly failing to file tax returns. The board of directors, which has the job of overseeing operations and the use of that state money, was defunct. The Amistad was not being managed by a Connecticut business, but by a sail-training organization based in Maine. It spent little time here but for the occasional visit.

It was clear that the DECD had shoveled all that money to the Amistad organization with no follow-up to account for how the group was spending it. The state authorized a $78,000 audit to track the money. It was expected to be finished nearly six months ago. We're still waiting. State officials are expected to meet with the auditors next week to get an update.

Meanwhile, the Amistad spent the winter in the Caribbean, filming a TV series about pirates. It is now in Nova Scotia filming a series for the Canadian Broadcasting Company. The Amistad is scheduled to visit Connecticut this summer, arriving for a July 3 festival in New Haven and coming to New London July 11 for Sail Fest. That hardly justifies the state's annual investment.

The Connecticut legislature could have stopped the grants that keep flowing to Amistad America until it gets some answers. It didn't.

This embarrassment represents the kind of waste and lack of oversight that leaves the public distrustful of how government spends its tax dollars. It is difficult to believe the situation continues unaddressed.

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