Political Storms and Leadership Controversy Plague the Modern-Day Amistad

There's a theory floating around that a latter-day band of buccaneers is trying to capture Connecticut's flagship and sail it away from its home port of New Haven.

Of course, these alleged pirates insist they only want to save the Amistad from what they claim is its current fumbling, bumbling captain and crew. And while some would like to see the tall ship anchored in New London, other critics believe the Amistad should stay in the city where it became a famous symbol of the anti-slavery movement.

Hanifa Washington, who took over as executive director of the Amistad America organization in July, and other allies of the organization, argue the state itself bears a good bit of the responsibility for the financial storm plaguing the tall ship. Washington claims there is an "orchestrated effort to basically dismantle the organization" at a time when it's just turning itself around.

The Amistad, for those of you who missed the Steven Spielberg flick, was the ship taken over in the waters off Cuba by 53 enslaved Africans in 1839. In an attempt to return to their homeland and freedom, they sailed the ship north and eventually landed on Long Island.

Recaptured, they and the Amistad were brought to New Haven, where a famous trial and anti-slavery ruling eventually freed them. The current vessel is a reproduction built in 1999-2000 at Mystic Seaport at a cost of $2.5 million in state funds.

Overall, the state has pumped nearly $9 million into the Amistad project, including $2 million for dredging and a home-port pier in New Haven; $725,000 for repair work on the vessel; plus $3.5 million in operating subsidies since the 129-foot Baltimore clipper-style ship was launched.

While the state's annual $379,000 in Amistad money has continued to flow, millions of dollars in federal grants for the ship dried up several years ago and fundraising efforts apparently floundered. The result was a rapid plunge into debt despite the legislature's decision to designate it as Connecticut's flagship.

(Careful now: the Amistad is the official "Flagship" of Connecticut, but our "State Ship" is the USS Nautilus, the world's first nuclear submarine, and it's tied up at a museum dock in Groton.)

In case you were wondering, all this talk of pirates is actually rather appropriate. The Amistad is right now sailing the waters off Puerto Rico, playing the role of a pirate ship for the NBC mini-series "Crossbones" about the infamous Blackbeard. John Malkovich is portraying Edward Teach, which was the pirate chieftain's actual name.

For the use of the ship, Amistad America is being paid something like $200,000. Washington says that money is needed to keep the tall ship from sinking back into a sea of red ink. (Gotta love those maritime metaphors.)

One of the fiercest critics of the current Amistad board is state Rep. Diana Urban, a North Stonington lawmaker. Urban snorts at the idea the Amistad should be whoring itself out down in the Caribbean when it should be up here attending events like the Connecticut Schooner Festival in Mystic and New London that got cranked up last week.

Urban also calls that $200,000 "a drop in the bucket to have that ship down there for that amount of time... It's embarrassing."

According to a three-page state report on the Amistad's situation that was released last week, the ship's nonprofit organization "accrued several hundred thousands of dollars in bad debt" and back payroll problems. Lots of Amistad's vendors are still owed money, and the state is spending $79,000 for an outside audit of the operation.

The review by the state Department of Economic and Community Development, which has been handling the Amistad's annual state grant for years, did find some upsides to the mess.

Those include the fact that Amistad America has negotiated several new partnerships, including a deal with the Maine-based Ocean Classroom Foundation to operate the ship. One potential problem with that arrangement is that the executive director of Ocean Classroom is Greg Belanger, who served as head of Amistad America during the period when all those nasty financial troubles arose.

Back in June, former Amistad crew member and officer J. Dennis Burroughs told the New London Day that Belanger's leadership or lack thereof is part of the reason why the organization is in such bad shape.

"We're interested in seizing the vessel," Burroughs said, explaining that his group of fellow critics want to bring the Amistad to New London and restore it to its original educational mission. Efforts to reach Belanger for comment were unsuccessful.

With all that going on, "Amistad America projects positive net operating revenue this fiscal year," according to the report. Washington says that's the first time that's happened "in at least five years."

Even though all the state money for Amistad went through DECD, agency officials insist that they had no authority to audit the organization's books or do anything about problems. "We have few remedies for lack of performance, or even concerns about operational issues," the report stated, and recommended legislative changes to give DECD that kind of power.

Washington calls the state report a fair analysis of the problems within Amistad America and the state's lack of oversight.