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Amistad's star should burn brightly again

By David Collins

Publication: The Day

Published June 09. 2013 4:00AM   Updated June 09. 2013 7:24AM

It was eight years ago this spring that I spent three long days in an Atlantic gale aboard the schooner Amistad.

The Coast Guard conducted a major airlift rescue during the same storm, saving six people from other boats near us, also bound for Bermuda. The skipper of one boat was swept over and died in the arms of his first mate, who survived alone in the 30-foot seas for another 15 hours, until a tanker rescued him.

One of the members on my watch that trip was a Presbyterian minister, sailing with Amistad as part of a sabbatical with the United Church of Christ, an early sponsor of the recreation of the famous ship.

I remember telling the minister, after a few days in the storm, that it looked like the weather was finally moderating.

No, he said, shaking his head, as we stood together at the ship's rail for our nightly watch, tethered in place for safety, as more big waves lashed the decks of the pitching ship.

Days later, the minister recounted his lack of faith that the weather would improve during a remarkable sermon he gave from the pulpit of a Bermuda church, relating his own experience aboard Amistad to what the black captives on the original ship must have been thinking before they famously broke the chains that bound them and took command of their own destinies.

That storm was my own bonding with the ship, not only to the wonderful story it helps tell over and over but to the boat itself, a beautiful thing built so well by the shipwrights at Mystic Seaport.

"She is heavy and solid and, through the worst of the storm, rose and fell mightily, easily, on each massive wave, no creaking or groaning, all business," I wrote then in a dispatch from the ship, via satellite email.

And that bond is what makes me so sad that the ship seems to have been literally hijacked from Connecticut, leased to a sail training organization in Maine, just another tall ship in the fleet for students paying to learn how to sail at sea.

Amistad made a stop at a southern maritime museum this spring, on a trip from a winter berth in the Caribbean back to Maine. Someone there wrote me to say what a sorry sight it was.

"She was not prepared to receive visitors (no gangway … oil barrels all over the deck)," the person wrote. "Her crew are able and friendly, but are clearly in the dark about her role as 'ambassador.' They simply work for (Ocean Classroom, the leasing organization) and do not interpret the vessel."

By last week, Amistad passed right by the coast of Connecticut, moving on through the Cape Cod Canal and toward Maine, without even a stop in the state that has invested more than $6 million in the ship. Amistad is not homeported here anymore, although summer visits have been promised.

What is maddening is that the apparent theft of the ship from Connecticut has taken place right under the noses of Connecticut bureaucrats, who continue to lavish money on what's left of the nonprofit, Amistad America, the organization that was given the ship after the state paid to build it. It was launched to the applause of huge crowds in 2000 in Mystic.

The state actually suspended the last of this year's payments of $75,000 to Amistad, after this newspaper reported that the agency has lost its nonprofit status with the Internal Revenue Service because it hasn't filed a tax return for more than three years.

But Christopher "Kip" Bergstrom, deputy commissioner of the state Department of Economic and Community Development, recently told me the state decided to go ahead and make the payment anyway, so that Amistad America could gets its accounting in order and better explain how it has spent the hundreds of thousands of dollars it has received from the state in the last two years. Another $359,000 is in next year's budget, and $359,000 more is scheduled to be paid out the year after that.

That's right. Even though the IRS has issued a warning about giving money to the organization, the state will keep the spigot wide open.

Incredibly, Bergstrom said his agency has known all along that Amistad America hasn't been filing tax returns. The only news to the DECD, which provoked the short suspension in payments, now over, he said, was that the IRS had revoked Amistad America's nonprofit status.

The staff for Attorney General George Jepsen doesn't seem quite as casual about Amistad America's problems with the IRS.

In a letter last month, an assistant attorney general set a deadline of June 10 for Gregory Belanger, president of Amistad America, to produce a copy of an application for IRS reinstatement. The attorney general also requested audited financial reports.

After all, the state gave Amistad America close to $1 million over the last three years, a period when the ship was largely out of commission, docked at Mystic Seaport. Where did all that money go?

There's no answer in tax returns.

Another disturbing aspect to the ship's being sent to Maine is that the organization leasing it also hired Belanger. How is it not an enormous conflict of interest for the president of a nonprofit largely supported by the state of Connecticut to negotiate a lease deal - assigning the nonprofit's only asset - with an organization that then hires him and pays him a salary?

In the last tax return filed by Amistad America, the agency reported paying Belanger $122,866. Is he now double-dipping?

As best I can tell, there is not much left to the Amistad America organization. Never mind that it has no office or website or working phone number and doesn't file tax returns.

The only board member Belanger could name when I spoke to him is the chairwoman, a politically connected woman who once ran the state Permanent Commission on the Status of Women, before leaving the agency in some turmoil.

Others who have served on the board either did not return calls or declined to talk about Amistad.

Former crew members say Belanger has a tendency to mislead people about Amistad's situation and exaggerate future prospects.

For years, they say, he has been reporting a deal is in the works for a major film production involving Amistad. But none has ever materialized.

Indeed, when I spoke to Belanger recently, he talked about a pending film deal but declined to discuss the details or name the principals.

Bergstrom of the DECD also suggested when I spoke to him that an announcement on a film deal is in the works.

Steven Spielberg made a blockbuster Amistad movie before Mystic Seaport even launched the replica ship. Would anyone really make another Amistad movie now?

It is such a shame to think that Connecticut, lawmakers and bureaucrats alike, napped while the Amistad was spirited away to Maine.

Apparently, the state's 10-year mortgage on the ship has expired. But maybe someone could force a return of the ship if no accounting is made for all that money the state has passed along since.

You may or may not like the politics of U.S. Sen. Richard Blumenthal, but I have to believe that Connecticut Attorney General Blumenthal would have gotten to the bottom of this were he still in that office.

And I know Mystic Seaport has its hands full getting the Charles W. Morgan ready to relaunch, but Amistad would be an excellent part of its permanent collection. The state could probably contribute a lot less than $359,000 to be sure Amistad is open to the public and sails from time to time, as an ambassador with a compelling Connecticut story, not a sail training ship.

Museum leaders should be outraged and lobbying to get back the beautiful thing they built.

I heard recently from Eliza Garfield, who was captain of Amistad for four years and brought us all safely into Bermuda eight years ago, despite significant storm damage to the steering gear and a generator failure.

"Amistad should sail again in the spirit and tradition in which she was launched," Garfield wrote in an email. "(Receiving thousands of visitors on world travels, the ship gave) the gift of contemplating what it truly means to stand up against tyranny or injustice and to claim freedom for one's self and one's children.

"Like the Africans in whose wake she was launched and has sailed, I have a sense that Amistad's star can shine brightly once again."

This is the opinion of David Collins.

David Collins

Town News

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