Published May 19. 2014 4:00AM
Amistad America has told the owner of a small Norwich screenprinting and embroidery business that it will make a "good faith payment" of $500 toward the more than $7,000 it owes her in for unpaid bills dating back to 2006.
State Rep. Diana Urban, D-North Stonington, who has been helping Deb Bilda of BMTees and other businesses owed money by Amistad America, said the attorney who is handling the unpaid bills for the organization informed her of the payment late last week.
BMTees is among a group of small businesses who say they were never paid by Amistad America, the financially troubled organization that continues to receive large amounts of state funding despite losing its tax-exempt status for failing to file federal tax returns and being the target of a ongoing state audit to determine how it spent $8 million in state funds.
Urban said that at first she viewed it as "a paltry sum" but after talking to Bilda they agreed it was a beginning.
"She has nothing now so $500 is much better than what she has," Urban said. "And it sets a tone. By giving her money they acknowledge they have an obligation to pay this small company."
She said the attorney did not indicate when Bilda would receive her next payment.
Urban said she will continue to press Amistad America to pay Bilda and the others their debt plus interest. She added she had just received a packet of information from another company that says it is owed money by Amistad America.
"I hope anyone who is owed money will come forward," she said.
In 2006 and 2007, BMTees made 349 shirts for Amistad America. Over the next 16 months, Bilda made repeated calls to the nonprofit seeking the more than $4,000 she was owed. BMTees finally wrote off the debt - a significant hit for the small operation.
Many of Bilda's calls were ignored and promises to pay were never kept. This year, she said she emailed Amistad Executive Director Hanifa Washington, who took over last year, seeking payment but did not receive a response. As of last summer, the interest and fees that have been accruing totaled more than $7,000.
Meanwhile, the state of Connecticut continues to work on its audit of Amistad America's finances under former president and CEO Greg Belanger.
Belanger now heads the Maine-based Ocean Classroom Foundation. While heading Amistad America, he signed a deal with Ocean Classroom to operate the ship. He stepped down from his Amistad America post last summer.
The Amistad is now in Shelburne, Nova Scotia, filming a miniseries for the Canadian Broadcasting Company based on the novel "Book of Negroes."