Amistad

The schooner Amistad is seen in full sail in May 2009. (Voytec Wacowski / May 28, 2009)

An independent receiver was appointed Thursday to take command of Amistad America Inc., the troubled nonprofit group widely criticized for its management of the replica slave ship that it has controlled since the ship's launch 14 years ago.

Attorney General George Jepsen sought a court order naming a receiver to untangle the group's precarious finances and assure that any future state grants to the organization were spent wisely. The order, approved by Superior Court Judge Antonio C. Robaina in Hartford, strips Amistad America's leadership of authority over the nonprofit and places it in the hands of New Haven attorney Katharine B. Sacks.

Sacks, who has served as receiver in past cases brought by the attorney general's office, essentially will take on the role of the group's chief executive officer, with the authority to sign contracts, spend money and take on debt. The court order also prohibits the organization's creditors from taking action to collect on debts without obtaining court approval.

"Today's action puts in place a professional and experienced receiver who will ensure that, over the coming months, the organization's finances are handled correctly and that existing obligations are addressed," Jepsen said. "We will seek to continue the receivership until the public can be assured that its money is being properly used and accounted for and that a plan exists for the organization to responsibly carry out its mission into the future."

Amistad America's board of trustees voted Tuesday not to oppose the receivership.

"We've been working closely with the state through this entire rebuilding process and we trust they have the best intentions of our organization in mind," Hanifa Washington, executive director of Amistad America Inc., said in a statement. "Having a direct link between the organization and the state to approve funding and ultimately address the concerns of taxpayers is exactly what we need."

Amistad America was founded in 1996 to manage the Freedom Schooner Amistad, a replica of the ship at the center of a sensational legal fight in Connecticut over slavery in 1839 and 1840. The tall sailing ship served as a floating classroom on the New Haven shore and beyond, and received millions in state aid. But a year ago, news reports revealed that Amistad America Inc. had lost its tax-exempt status and had signed a deal that moved the ship's home port to Maine rather than Connecticut.

Earlier this month, the first financial audits produced since 2008 showed the depth of the nonprofit's financial troubles, with net assets dropping from more than $1 million in March 2008 to negative assets three years later. As the money ran out, the group defaulted on bank loans, laid off financial experts and borrowed money from employees for operating expenses. But those troubles remained hidden as state officials agreed to Amistad America's requests, year after year, to extend the deadline for filing detailed audits — even as the state continued to provide the majority of the nonprofit group's income. The state has since frozen its grants.

The audits covered four years ending in March 2012. Part of the receiver's job would be to determine what has happened to the nonprofit's finances in the nearly 2 1/2 years since. To protect state grants, officials decided not to wait for more updated audits before seeking a receivership.

"There remain substantial challenges ahead for the Amistad — not least of which are designing an appropriate governing structure for the organization and identifying consistent and adequate sources for its operational funding," Jepsen said. "Success is not guaranteed, but today's action is a necessary first step and one that can give the state the confidence needed to continue expending funds allocated for the Ship's operations."

The Amistad schooner is scheduled to be at New London's Amistad Pier from Saturday through Monday to commemorate the 175th anniversary of the Amistad uprising.