State Senator Fasano asks OPM for more information on Amistad America audits [NH Register]

August 15, 2014

New Haven Register

State Sen. Len Fasano wrote to the state Office of Policy and Management on Thursday to demand “more information regarding Amistad America, Inc.’s financial problems uncovered in four audits released on Friday.”

Fasano, R-North Haven, asked specific questions about the audits conducted by Farmington-based firm CohnReznick and managed by OPM, his office said in a press release.
“The level of disorganization, failure to fulfill responsibilities and mismanagement of funding by Amistad America, Inc. is appalling,” Fasano said in a statement. “The audits are our first direct look into the bigger problems at stake here. They also raise further questions that must be addressed immediately.”

Read the letter here.

Amistad America Inc., owns the Amistad, the state’s 79-foot official flagship that makes its home port in New Haven. Built in 1999 at a cost of $2.5 million, the Amistad is an updated replica of the original slave ship, La Amistad, which was used in 1839 to transport 53 African captives, originally from Sierra Leone, from one part of Cuba to another before they took control of the ship.

The state froze the $359,000 per year subsidy to the organization while awaiting the results of the audits.

The organization’s 501(c)(3) nonprofit status was recently yanked by the Internal Revenue Service as a result of delinquent filings. Along with the vessel’s structural issues, the organization has found itself at odds with the state regarding financial concerns.

Fasano, in line to be the Senate minority leader, asks in the letter, addressed to OPM Secretary Benjamin Barnes, for information related to Amistad America’s fundraising activities and salary expenses. He also asked about Amistad’s relationship with Maine-based Ocean Classroom Foundation Inc. The organization’s contract with Ocean Classroom, which for the past 20 months has operated and insured the ship, ends Aug. 31.

Ocean Classroom announced in July that it is going out of business, unable to sustain its 20-year-old model operating educational programs on three older tall ships, all of which need major repairs.

Fasano also asks OPM about its management of the auditing process. He questions why OPM only chose to audit through March 31, 2012, why OPM granted extensions for the submissions of the audits beyond what is allowed by state regulations and why OPM didn’t previously consider suspending financial assistance until the audits were completed.

“Unfortunately these audits confirm what was feared, that there are wide deficiencies in the financial management of the Amistad America Inc. organization across the board,” Fasano wrote in the letter. “It is my opinion that no further monies shall be allotted to this organization until an appropriate corrective action plan is approved by the state and implemented by the organization. For the protection of the taxpayers’ monies I hope that you share the same sentiment.”

Fasano called the Amistad “one of Connecticut’s greatest historic treasures,” and said “it pains me to see the organization responsible for preserving the ship in such financial trouble.

“We need complete transparency now, so that we can resolve the problems, respect our taxpayers and protect our ship,” Fasano wrote.

Amistad America’s executive director, Hanifa Washington, said last week that the “numbers don’t lie.”

Washington became the executive director last July.

“The findings indicate no maleficence and no misuse of funds by Amistad America,” Washington said in a statement. “The audit findings include a series of recommendations that we look forward to using as we move forward in rebuilding the organization.”

OPM said last week the release of the audits is the first step in a review that will be conducted by OPM, the Attorney General’s Office and the state Department of Economic and Community Development.

“That is the first step in crafting a plan, in collaboration with stakeholders and the New Haven community, that will protect the state’s investments, the educational mission of the ship, and help ensure that vendors get paid,” Gian-Carl Casa, undersecretary of legislative affairs for OPM, said last Friday in a release.

Also last Friday a group of legislators led by Diana Urban, D-Stonington, and Ted Moukwasher, D-Groton, sent a letter to Attorney General George Jepson expressing concern and asking for details regarding the next steps Amistad America will take after the closing of Ocean Classroom.

Twenty-three other state legislators reportedly signed onto the letter, which also inquired what organization will retain management over the Amistad when Ocean Classroom Foundation closes at the end of summer.

“The demise of Ocean Classroom Foundation prompted us to request that the Attorney General look into irregularities surrounding the Amistad,” Urban said in a press release. “We are focused on protecting the taxpayer and retaining the Amistad as the flagship of the state of Connecticut.”

In the letter, the legislators requested copies of any and all agreements between Ocean Classroom Foundation and Amistad America; a complete statement of all liens currently filed against the Amistad vessel; a copy of all mortgages secured by the Ocean Classroom Foundation vessels or other of its property and the attorney general’s “assurance” that the Amistad vessel is not pledged or liable for any debts of the Ocean Classroom Foundation.

Washington said last Friday that a corrective action plan will be sent to the firm and OPM by this Friday, Aug. 15.