Amistad agrees to detail spending

Amistad America has agreed to use Results-Based Accountability methods, as urged by state Rep. Diana Urban, to better demonstrate how it has spent its state subsidies.

The North Stonington Democrat met with New Haven legislators and Amistad America executive director Hanifa Washington, who agreed to use the budgeting method to measure the success of its programing relative to its funding.

The foundation's nonprofit status remains revoked and state auditors are still looking into how Amistad America has been spending state funds.

Results-based budgeting would require the organization to quantify such activities as how many visitors the vessel has and how many ports it visits. Urban said Amistad America would have to report how well participants learned - perhaps through a questionnaire - and whether people benefited from the program.

The state Department of Economic and Community Development plans to make payments totaling $359,000 a year to Amistad America over the next two years. DECD representatives have said Amistad is turning a corner and that its new partnerships are positive steps.

Urban said she sent Sen. Toni Harp, D-New Haven, and Rep. Toni Walker, D-New Haven, a report on the "systemic lack of data" from the Amistad America. Harp, Walker and Urban met with Washington to discuss future accountability.

"I don't want to destroy the Amistad, I just want it to be accountable to the taxpayer, so it seemed the appropriate time to ask for Results-Based Accountability," Urban said.

Washington said on Thursday that she voluntarily agreed to use Results-Based Accountability and that it was not a mandate or punishment. "It was a suggestion (Urban) made and I accepted it," Washington said.

One of the new director's tasks will be fundraising. Washington worked on program development for Amistad America from 2009 until she was named executive director this month. She said she has been working on youth development and at nonprofits for the past 10 years. She added that while she has grant-writing experience, she has never had primary fundraising responsibility.

"In terms of pitching to an audience or finding people to pitch to, I don't have a lot of that experience, but I already have coaches and am doing some trainings around that," she said.

Urban had said she wanted to see the entire staff of Amistad America dissolved, and that Washington had been picked internally and without the job being advertised.

Board Chairman Fredrica Gray confirmed Thursday that the job never was advertised but added that Washington has lots of experience with sailing and with the Amistad.

Greg Belanger, the former executive director of Amistad America who now serves as the director of the Maine-based Ocean Classroom Foundation, will oversee the vessel's maintenance, crew and arrivals and departures under contract with Ocean Classroom through July 2014. Washington and Amistad America's board will be in charge of the organization's programs and mission.

Belanger also will provide state auditors and Amistad America's accountant with any additionally needed information, Washington said, as the organization tries to get its tax-exempt status reinstated and undergoes a state audit.

Amistad lost its tax-exempt status after failing to file tax returns for three years. During that time, Belanger was the executive director and Gray was on the board.

Gray said they are working on filing tax forms as quickly as possible and that she is not concerned about what the audit might find or about state funding going forward.

"We have always been up front about everything, our money. We have people working on our 990s right now so the audit will be finished and (we are) looking forward to getting that done," Gray said.

Urban said the reason she sought Results-Based Accountability is that previous reports to the DECD were not clear. Amistad has been given $8 million by the state during the last 15 years; Urban said it is unclear precisely how that money was spent.

The DECD was the source of $2.5 million given to Amistad America since 2008. Most of the reports from the DECD explain how $400,000 in bond money was approved for ship repairs. Little information is given on the $2 million in state funds Amistad America received from 2008 to 2012.

Urban has said she is not satisfied with the DECD's response to her inquiries about Amistad finances. She also has said that DECD has been resistant to results-based reporting.

The schooner was launched in 2000 and originally sailed to ports around the United States to tell the story of African captives freed after a Supreme Court case in 1839. In the past few years, Amistad America has had a shortage of funds and has spent time at Mystic Seaport being repaired.

j.somers@theday.com

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