By DIANA URBAN | COMMENTARY
The Hartford Courant
5:59 PM EDT, September 6, 2013
There is no disagreement on how important the sailing ship Amistad — which carried slaves from Cuba along America's Atlantic coast — is to the history of the abolitionist movement or to Connecticut. The modern-day, 129-foot replica of Amistad, which state taxpayers have spent millions of dollars to build and maintain, is the embodiment of a story that has all the elements to galvanize and teach our students about the struggles that surrounded the quest for equality.
Unfortunately, Amistad America Inc., the nonprofit group charged with operating the replica ship, has foundered in recent years and is out of money. The Amistad, instead of being in Connecticut waters as was required by a now-expired contract, has been berthed in Maine during summer months and currently is in Puerto Rico for the making of a movie. All this while state overseers continued to send $375,000 to $475,000 a year to the sinking organization.
The failure to hold the Amistad organization's operators accountable to the state must be remedied and all agreements must be brought up to date and enforced. A long-overdue audit, recently ordered by the governor's budget office, should begin to give the state a clear idea of Amistad America's condition.
I have long championed results-based accountability in the General Assembly. This model focuses on data-informed decision-making. The lack of data surrounding any decisions regarding the Amistad is shocking. In fact, had the Amistad been under the auspices of the Results Based Accountability subcommittee of Appropriations, we would have caught this financial meltdown in 2007.
A review of the directed local funds application, which Amistad American Inc. had to file each year with the Department of Economic and Community Development, revealed some disturbing problems. The application asks: How will this funding benefit the citizens of Connecticut? Describe how you will evaluate the success of the activities? Presumably the answers would provide some information on the fiscal health of the organization.
What did I find? I found sections of the application, which is used to justify continued funding of Amistad, were copied and pasted from year to year — a 2009 report still contained the year 2007 in the narrative. Whoever prepared the application hadn't bothered to change the date. Even a cursory review would have revealed this immediately. I can only conclude that no one at DECD was reading these reports.
Had Amistad America Inc. been under the auspices of the Results Based Accountability Subcommittee of Appropriations, it would have had to answer three simple questions: How much did you do? How well did you do it? And is anyone better off? Succinct, transparent and accountable.
As it is, the directed local fund reports as written make it difficult to even find verifiable data points. Claims made about activities in one year are not verified in the next year. In my review, it was very clear that there were major financial problems in 2007 and it got worse. And yet, we just kept giving the Amistad organization state funds.
I also found what appears to be an endowment, which was spent. In reviewing the paperwork, I can only conclude that it paid for a trip across the Atlantic to Sierra Leone because the Amistad had run out of money. While there, they apparently appealed to a local organization for a grant to get home, which this private organization very rightly denied.
I then examined minutes from Amistad's board of directors meetings. More bad news. Board members were not attending meetings, Amistad was being sued by Voytech their former web master, TD Bank also sued the organization and put a lien on the boat, NBC planned on altering the boat to appear more like a 1700s pirate vessel for the TV show "Crossbones," including removing radar, lighting cables, windlass, anchor chain, lifeboats and building up the stern with a "house."
This altering of the boat is particularly disturbing when the minutes note in regard to the Amistad's insurance "the current contract restricts Amistad's operating in waters south of specified latitude during hurricane season which includes the filming location (Puerto Rico) … and the current provider is dropping coverage of the Amistad as current in force contracts expire."
But most egregious of all is that Amistad failed to pay a small business owner who had delivered T-shirts in good faith. Debra Bilda kept meticulous records of her efforts to get paid. She even received an encouraging letter, but no money. Her business helps to form an economic web in southeast Connecticut. The bills date back to 2007. Corporations sued to get their money. All Debra got was sleepless nights.
The bottom line? We cannot afford any lack of accountability for taxpayers' dollars. Amistad America needs to be brought back on course and tough accountability standards can do just that. It is time to for the state to steer the flagship of Connecticut back to safe, home port waters.
Editor's note: This story was corrected from an earlier version, which erroneously said the Amistad carried slaves from Africa to America instead of from Cuba along the Atlantic coast.
Diana Urban is a Democratic state representative from North Stonington.
Copyright © 2014, The Hartford Courant