State Pours Money Into Amistad, Must Demand Accountability

The replica of the sailing ship Amistad berthed in Middletown in its early days. The ship has rarely been in Connecticut waters in recent years despite millions spent on the craft by the state.

Connecticut needs to renegotiate its relationship with Amistad, its tall ship, to get a guarantee in writing that the ship will be in the state and open to the public four months a year.

That's the least the state should get in return for spending millions to build the ship and for its ongoing $359,000-a-year commitment.

The state Department of Economic and Community Development says it is ready to insist, in writing, that the Amistad be in Connecticut from June to September in 2014 and open to the public That would be a way overdue start.

The ship's affairs have been a mess. State Rep. Diana Urban, D-North Stonington, is right to be critical of what the state has gotten for its millions of dollars in the last 13 years. Her questions deserve answers.

While the ship was in dry dock for the last two years, for example, Amistad America Inc., the organization that owns it, received $700,000 from the Connecticut Department of Economic and Community Development. The Amistad's executive director until this summer, Greg Belanger, was listed as collecting a salary of $122,800 a year. What did the Connecticut public get during that time? Little to nothing.

Just as disturbing, Amistad America Inc. stiffed a small Norwich company, BMTees, for more than $4,000 for T-shirts it ordered in 2006 and 2007. The money must be repaid — with interest.

Last year, a Maine organization, Ocean Classroom, began operating the ship. It employed Mr. Belanger — a conflict of interest. About the same time, Amistad America lost its tax-exempt status for not filing taxes in the last three years that Mr. Belanger led the organization.

For all the disarray surrounding the Amistad, and despite the continuing flow of state tax money, it is clear the state has no control over the ship.

Where's The Ship?

In June, the DECD said the ship would spend July and August in Connecticut. But the ship left the state July 30 for Puerto Rico so it could be in an NBC miniseries starting in September, for which Amistad America Inc., would be paid $250,000.

Rep. Urban said the DECD assured her that the ship would not sail to the island until after hurricane season. And this past spring, NBC indicated that filming would not begin until October or November, said Amistad America's new executive director, Hafina Washington.

But when the network changed the schedule to begin filming in September, the ship was obliged to set sail to honor its contract, she said.

It's expensive to run a tall ship, and it's understandable that the Amistad America didn't want to jeopardize this revenue. Hurricane season lasts half a year, and with today's technology, the ship should have enough warning of impending tropical storms to seek shelter.

However, the state's lack of oversight is more troubling. The DECD has not been forthcoming with details about the state's legal relationship with the ship.

Where's The Contract?

For example, more than two months ago, The Courant filed a freedom of information request with DECD to get a copy of the state's agreement with Amistad America. The department has yet to provide any information.

Ms. Washington has been more forthcoming. She said the state had a lease agreement with Amistad America for 10 years after the ship launched in 2000. The agreement stipulated that the ship had to spend six months a year in Connecticut. Since the end of the agreement in 2010, Amistad America has had no obligation to be in the state for any stipulated length of time in return for $359,000 of taxpayer's money annually. And DECD has apparently not insisted on such terms as part of the continued flow of state revenue.

It should, starting now.

Ms. Washington said it is Amistad America's priority to be in Connecticut. She wants the ship to be open to the public for four months next year.

That's a good start. But the DECD needs to get it in writing. And make it stick.