Malloy’s outrage over Amistad slow in coming [The Day]

July 11, 2014

The Day Opinion | David Collins

I was startled to read Gov. Dannel Malloy’s huffing, angry letter to Amistad America Thursday, threatening to “reconsider support of additional state funding.”

Malloy said it is “wholly unacceptable” for Amistad to not come to New London’s Sailfest this coming weekend, reacting to news earlier this week of the organization’s decision not to honor the festival commitment.

“Ensuring that the ship is able to attend Sailfest should be among the most basic fulfillments” of the organization’s agenda, the governor said.


Where was the governor’s outrage over Amistad America not filing tax returns for three years, losing its non-profit status with the Internal Revenue Service?

Where was his outrage when the ship sailed out of the state for more than a year, leaving behind creditors and unpaid bills and no accounting of how years of state funding have been spent? Where was the outrage when it sat under a canvas cover at Mystic Seaport for two years, not going anywhere, while the state paid Amistad America close to $400,000 a year, money that has never been accounted for?

There was no gubernatorial outrage over the fact that the organization has ignored laws requiring annual reports to be filed with the secretary of the state. There was not a gubernatorial peep when we learned Amistad is now soliciting gifts without a non-profit designation or that it is trying to sign up kids for a $1,000-a-head summer camp that is not licensed by the state.

There was no outrage for that matter when Amistad skipped New London’s big schooner festival last fall or when it broke a commitment to attend the Wooden Boat Show earlier this summer at Mystic Seaport.

I like Sailfest, too. But you wonder why that was the trigger that finally got the governor riled up. Is he afraid of Sailfest Director Barbara Neff?

Or could the governor’s new backbone be related to the fact that a prominent Republican, the Senate minority leader pro tempore, has begun to rattle Democrats’ cage for doing nothing about the lack of Amistad accountability for so long.

“This lack of oversight is unacceptable,” Sen. Leonard Fasano wrote to Malloy Thursday. “Until the state is made fully aware of how the taxpayers’ money is being spent, we should not blindly fund this organization.”

I expected, after first reporting, more than a year ago, that Amistad America had lost its nonprofit status for failing to file tax returns that the state would, at the very least, stop sending money.

After all, I reported then, the organization no longer had a working website, a Connecticut address, a telephone number or an active board of directors. It had stopped interpreting the Amistad story, which was the point in funding it in the first place, and essentially ceased to exist as anything but a siphon for state money.

But, no, the state hesitated briefly, but then kept sending money – wiring it, maybe because there was no Connecticut address to mail it to – right through this spring.

The state did commission a private audit, which was supposed to be done last October. The politicians, from wimpy Attorney General George Jepsen, to members of Congress, also should have been outraged about millions in federal money that went to the Amistad piracy, but weren’t, all huddled behind the audit excuse.

The state has been saying, since last November, that the audit would be done in a week. Honestly, that’s what they said just last week, that it would be done this week. And it’s not.

But slowly, ever so slowly, the state bureaucracy has started to get the message.

A spokesman for the state Office of Policy and Management told me this week that no payments for this fiscal year – money the Democratic-controlled legislature blithely included in the new budget, more money for the pirates – will be made until some questions are answered.

“When it became clear auditors were not going to meet the June 30 deadline we instructed (Department of Economic Development) that payments for Fiscal Year 15 should not be made …” the OPM spokesman wrote.

Apparently, though, no one told the governor, since his letter-as-press-release Thursday, warning about stopping new appropriations, made no mention of the fact his government has already shut the spigot on the current appropriations.

No one, either, has apparently clued in $135,000-a-year DECD Deputy Commissioner Christopher Bergstrom, who was quoted on public radio last week saying that the state needs to strengthen Amistad America with more state money.

If state officials were really interested in learning more about what happened to Amistad they might want to pay attention to the Maine tall ships organization Ocean Classroom, which was founded by a respected trustee of Mystic Seaport.

Greg Belanger, executive director of Amistad America for all the years it wasn’t filing tax returns, was actually earning $58,000 a year as executive director of Ocean Classroom as far back as 2012, according to tax returns.

Of course, in 2012 Amistad was under canvas in Mystic and Belanger’s Amistad America was still squarely on the Connecticut dole.

Belanger, who had moved Amistad to Ocean Classroom’s fleet, resigned from Amistad America when I reported this double dipping. He named the ship’s former cook as the new executive director.

Meanwhile, Ocean Classroom, under his stewardship, appears to be drifting into disarray. Two of its three ships are out of the water, in need of extensive restorations, and another is in a shipyard for repairs.

Reports about the organization’s financial problems are rife in the tall ships community, and I’ve heard them directly from some former Ocean Classroom crew.

Ocean Classroom’s 2013 tax return does not appear on public reporting websites. An IRS spokesperson told me it is not a public record whether the organization filed for an extension.

The founder and a benefactor of Ocean Classroom, now its president emeritus, did not return my calls. I also could not reach Belanger, who was said to be out of the Ocean Classroom offices in Maine.

Meanwhile, someone might tell the governor that it is unlikely Amistad, which arrived in New Haven this summer, at its old homeport pier, could make it to New London this weekend, even if they wanted to bow to his ultimatum.

When I visited the ship this week and asked to see the captain, the few crew members on board told me he is out of state. I got the impression he would not be back soon.

When I asked the crew if they are getting paychecks, they looked sheepish and didn’t answer.

“That’s an internal matter,” one said.

I took it as a no.

Where has all the money gone?