Troubles aboard Amistad

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HARTFORD, Conn. — Reviled in the 19th century for transporting slaves, the sleek schooner Amistad has been celebrated since its 2000 reincarnation as a Connecticut-built replica symbolizing the fight against slavery — and boasting the title of Connecticut’s “official flagship and tall ship ambassador.”

But these are not days for celebration or boasting about the Freedom Schooner Amistad.

After taxpayers have spent millions to build and sustain the 129-foot vessel for more than a decade, including continuing state grants of hundreds of thousands of dollars a year, the nonprofit group that owns the Amistad has largely fallen apart and run out of money.

And, during much of the past year, Amistad America Inc.’s efforts to rescue itself have led it to send the state’s flagship to Maine, where it has been operated by a sailing school. After a brief return to the state this summer, it’s now in Puerto Rico for the shooting of a TV series that will help counteract the financial leakage.

How did the proud story of the Amistad stray so far off its original course?

To find answers, the state has hired an accounting firm to audit the floundering nonprofit group’s books and look for possible problems such as “financial irregularities” and “material noncompliance with laws or grant agreements.”

The governor’s budget office selected New York-based CohnReznick to perform the $78,000 special audit — asking, in effect, for a determination of whether this was a case of sloppy management, inadequate accounting or something worse.

“Since 2009, the organization has failed to file completed (Tax Exempt Form) 990 reports with the IRS and provisionally lost its nonprofit status in 2013,” the state budget office’s request for auditing services said. “The organization has failed to file its financial and State Single Audit reports,” required of state grant recipients, “for its fiscal years ended March 31, 2009 to March 31, 2013.”

Such a clinical recitation of failure would have been unthinkable a decade ago, when the legislature enthusiastically passed a law enshrining the Amistad as the Connecticut flagship with a mission to teach the lessons of its history to the public — primarily, students from kindergarten through high school.

It sailed as far as Africa as a symbol of unity and the human struggle for freedom.

But lately the Amistad’s struggle has been to stay afloat — as a seaworthy vessel and as a viable organization. Among its problems:

The vessel was docked for two years at Mystic Seaport, where it was built in 2000, after damage on a voyage back from Cuba in 2010.

Now that the corporation has lost its nonprofit status, its ability to solicit charitable donations has been lost, at least for now. Its governing board has shrunk from 22 members to four.

During this decline, the state Department of Economic and Community Development has continued to give Amistad America $375,000 to $475,000 a year in grant money, the governor’s budget office said. The total is $8 million through the years, including construction funds, said Rep. Diana Urban, D-North Stonington, whose district includes Mystic. DECD’s scrutiny and Amistad’s accountability have been “totally inadequate,” she says.

Urban’s protests followed disclosures by The Day of New London that the newly repaired Amistad late last year became part of the small fleet of a sailing school in Maine, the nonprofit Ocean Classroom Foundation. The Amistad group still owns the ship, but it has entered a contractual arrangement through at least mid-2014 to pay $5,000 a month for Ocean Classroom to supply a crew and manage the vessel.

Meanwhile, records suggest that Amistad America’s executive director, Greg Belanger, served in dual roles as executive director of both the Amistad and the Ocean Classroom groups for some period of time. Belanger’s compensation from Amistad totaled $137,000 in 2008, the last year for which a federal tax return was filed. He was listed as the Ocean Classroom’s executive director on its 2011 tax return. Amistad America says he resigned as its director this past July 1. He is still listed as the Maine group’s director on its website.

Urban said this raises questions of conflict of interest.

“It’s such a long and twisted story, and there’s been a complete lack of accountability — zero,” she said.

DECD told Urban in a May 29 memo that “contrary to some of the reporting on Amistad America in The (New London) Day, our findings paint a positive picture … of a struggling organization finally starting to turn the corner in achieving financial stability.”

“They have created three potentially transformative partnerships,” the memo said, citing the group’s relationship with the Ocean Classroom Foundation; with Love 146, described as “a New Haven-based non-profit focused on raising awareness of the global problem of human trafficking”; and with the TV production company Northern Entertainment Productions LLC.

It’s the third of those partnerships that has prompted Urban’s most recent criticism in recent weeks. Northern Entertainment Productions has made a deal with Amistad America and the Ocean Classroom to film the Amistad in a miniseries about Blackbeard the pirate in Puerto Rico starring John Malkovich.

The good news is that it will bring $250,000 in revenue. The bad news, Urban said, is that despite past assurances from DECD that the tall ship would stay in Connecticut waters for the summer, it headed south for the filming (and arrived there in recent days) because the producers moved up their schedule. The Amistad could be down in Puerto Rico through the end of the year.

That puts the Amistad in the wrong place during hurricane season, Urban said, although defenders say that the ship is fully insured and can be safely harbored to weather a storm.

“I see them sailing around like it’s their own yacht — to Sierra Leone … Cuba … Puerto Rico. It’s supposed to be the flagship of Connecticut,” Urban said. “We built it.”

The Amistad’s legal obligation to remain in Connecticut during the warmer months ran out in 2010 with the expiration of its original 10-year agreement with the state. But its main revenue still comes from the annual DECD grant, and its new executive director, Hanifa Washington, said that she’s committed to Connecticut.

Washington, a former crew member and cook on the ship, said that the Amistad will continue to fulfill its important educational and symbolic role here, especially in the summer months when it will be visible and accessible to students and the public at Connecticut ports.

She conceded that her group is a “small, struggling nonprofit,” but she said the contract with the Ocean Classroom, which was worked out by her predecessor, is “a very carefully crafted partnership” that took a year to work out and has provided a basis for much-needed financial stability and proper maintenance of the vessel.

She talked of attracting educators, dignitaries and fundraising experts to sit on a rebuilt board of directors to guide the group — which now has its quarters in a cooperative office building in New Haven called The Grove, after several address changes through the years. Washington, whose $60,000 salary is less than half of Belanger’s last known pay level, has only one fellow employee, a $40,000 bookkeeper.

But Washington said the group’s affairs are being put in order — she expects to regain tax-exempt status at some point in coming months — and she’s working to fill out its 2014 schedule.

She’s eyeing a new program of half-day “Freedom Sails” next year that would take 20 or so people from the Amistad’s home port of New Haven to New London, and then another group from New London to New Haven the next day. It will give people more time and a fuller experience, she said.

“We are proud to be Connecticut’s tall ship,” she said. “The ship’s mission will not be compromised.”

The mission is to tell and re-tell the story of the original Amistad, a “Baltimore clipper” built for speed and carrying African captives toward a plantation in Cuba in 1839. They broke free and took over the ship, but were captured and imprisoned in New Haven. Abolitionists helped them win their freedom in a landmark court case that culminated in an 1841 U.S. Supreme Court decision.

Washington expressed frustration in an interview last week about continued news coverage of Amistad America’s problems. She invited anyone to look at the group’s website, amistadvoyages.org, to find out how to contact her and talk about helping. Washington said it isn’t her place to comment about what led up to the group’s current predicament; her job, she said, is to guide the Amistad out of trouble.

But with so much invested in the Amistad — both in financial and social terms — it will probably be months or years before the past is forgotten.

There’s still the $78,000 audit by CohnReznick, an accounting firm with more than 20 U.S. offices. That’s not scheduled to be finished until November, said Karen Buffkin, deputy secretary of the state’s Office of Policy and Management. OPM has the power under state law to have an outside auditor scrutinize the books of a state-funded organization that has such a “significant delay” in filing its mandatory annual financial reports, Buffkin told Washington in a July 1 letter.

The $78,000 auditing fee will be charged against Amistad America’s state grant, OPM says.

Among the items listed by OPM for consideration by CohnReznick were the “significant programmatic partnership and contractual agreement” between Amistad America and the Ocean Classroom Foundation, as well as “new projected income generated through a lease of the vessel for film production.”

Belanger, the Amistad former executive director who now works for the Ocean Classroom Foundation, could not be reached for comment. Details of his pay arrangements with the two organizations during his overlap years were not available from the groups’ IRS filings.

Urban said she won’t be satisfied about the Amistad and DECD until she sees the results of a full accounting and a determination of whether laws or grant regulations were violated.

She’s obtained piles of documents from the DECD — including the annual applications that the Amistad group has had to file to obtain its annual grant funds. She noticed that the group’s applications for 2008 and 2009 both contained the same “top three management challenges” that Amistad America listed in for 2007 — in an apparent cut-and-paste job.

A former board of directors and staff member of Amistad America has watched from afar as the organization — and its original mission, he says — have unraveled.

“I began to be concerned about what was happening with the organization shortly after I left” to attend Yale Divinity School in 2003, said the Rev. Will Mebane, canon of the Trinity Episcopal Cathedral in Cleveland.

Mebane said in a telephone interview that he had worked extensively in developing ties with foundations, corporations and individuals who would donate and sustain Amistad America. “It takes a lot of money to operate a tall ship,” he said.

But he said in the years since, “negligence and incompetence” have brought the group to its current predicament.

“The biggest concern I had was that the mission and focus of the organization seemed to be shifting — shifting away from the vision of those of us that started the organization. It was to be a tall ship ambassador for the state of Connecticut, a floating museum that could be used to teach schoolchildren, K through 12, the lessons from the Amistad incident,” he said.

“The ship began to spend more and more time away from Connecticut, which I did not think was a smart move,” he said. “It began to lose its connection to, and support from, a number of the organizations and individuals that were in the state. People that were involved from the beginning were summarily ignored and not invited to participate in strategically planning the future of the ship. … Then I began to hear about them losing grants and not completing reports to some of the granting organizations, as would be required by any granting organizations.”

Mebane praised the DECD for its commitment in sticking with the group through its troubles.

But he added: “The organization needs to be remade, top to bottom,” including the resignation of its current board chairman, Fredrica Gray. “It does need a new board of directors. I would recruit those surviving (original) members of the organization to be members of the board, and I would then look to major, high-profile leaders” from education, politics and corporations, for example — “to become members of the board.

“And I would make a commitment to staying around Connecticut, particularly during the summer months,” he said. New England’s fall and winter are inhospitable to tall wooden ships, he said, and that’s the time for the Amistad to sail south.

Gray said in a phone interview later that she and the others at Amistad America already had assured that their arrangement with the Ocean Classroom would permit the ship to be in Connecticut waters for a significant part of the year. She said that the bad economy has been brutal to Amistad America and similar nonprofit groups, but that the agreement with the Maine organization has enabled her group and its vessel to keep going.

“I can’t even tell you how difficult it’s been,” she said, adding that it doesn’t help when people who have had nothing to do with the organization for years — including Mebane — “are now standing on the sidelines throwing stones.” She said that Amistad America would welcome help from those interested in participating and contributing, and she praised the efforts not only of Washington, but of Washington’s recently departed predecessor, Belanger.

“I believe that we are turning the corner,” Gray said.

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