Business owner says Amistad America never paid bill; audit of organization's debt underway

Debra Bilda, shown Tuesday in her Norwich screenprinting business, BMTees Inc., says Amistad America owes her company more than $4,000.
Debra Bilda, shown Tuesday in her Norwich screenprinting business, BMTees Inc., says Amistad America owes her company more than $4,000. Dana Jensen/The Day Buy Photo

Norwich - In 2006 and 2007, BMTees Inc., a small screenprinting and embroidery business in Taftville, made 349 shirts for Amistad America.

Over the next 16 months, owner Debra Bilda made repeated calls to the nonprofit seeking the more than $4,000 she was owed.

Many of her calls were ignored, and Amistad America, which has received more than $8 million from the state, never kept its promise to Bilda that she would be paid.

"I tried to contact them a million times to get paid," she said, adding that when she did reach the organization, she was told no one was available to talk to her.

Finally, Bilda, who has two employees, wrote off the debt even though it accounted for 2 percent of her gross annual revenue at the time.

"It was a huge hit for us," she said at her Norwich Avenue location on Tuesday. "I wrote it off because I was losing sleep over it."

In October 2008, when she gave up trying to get paid, the bill and interest totaled $4,047. BMTees levies finance charges of 1.5 percent per month and 18 percent per year for bills outstanding more than 30 days, according to the invoices sent to Amistad America.

Today, with the interest and fees that have been accruing, Amistad America would owe BMTees more than $7,000.

The extent of Amistad America's debt and how much it owes to businesses and organizations remains unclear.

Current Amistad executive director Hanifa Washington, who took over the organization in July, said Tuesday that the organization's debts predate her arrival and that an attorney is handling Amistad America's debt payment plan. That attorney, Charles Filardi of New Haven, said Wednesday via e-mail that "Amistad America, Inc. is in the process of a full audit and information will be made available at its conclusion."

Bilda said she decided to contact state Rep. Diana Urban, D-North Stonington, about her experience after reading of Urban's demand for accountability from the state Department of Economic Development and about Amistad America losing its tax-exempt status because it had not filed federal tax returns for three consecutive years.

"As a small business employing 3 people, this was a pretty big hit to my bottom line. In as much as this bad debt has been written off sometime ago, I share this with you so that you can insure that this experience does not repeat itself with others who conduct business with an organization that receives and accepts state monies," Bilda wrote to Urban in her July 25 e-mail.

Bilda met with Urban at the state Capitol last week and now Urban said she is determined that Amistad America pay Bilda.

She said if the foundation refuses, she will take legislative action, possibly trying to take the money to pay Bilda from the more than $700,000 in state grants that Amistad America is set to receive over the next two years.

"This woman owns a small business," Urban said Monday. "Give her the money."

In an email, state DECD commissioner Catherine Smith told Urban that Bilda should contact Filardi, who is handling Amistad's unpaid bills. Urban was not happy with that the response.

"To refer me to some lawyer is not what I wanted to hear. I want this taken care of," Urban said. She strongly has criticized DECD for what she describes as its lack of oversight of how Amistad America has spent state funding. The state is now conducting an audit of the organization, which owns the schooner.

Urban has spent years pushing state officials to adopt a budgeting system in which programs may be funded only if they can show data that proves the programs are effective. She has said DECD has been one of the agencies that has most resisted her efforts. Recently, Amistad America announced that it will use a results-based budgeting method as it goes forward.

Bilda has been in business here for 20 years, eight at her current location. She makes items for schools, businesses, sports teams and other customers.

In 2002, she said, she started filling orders from Amistad America for T-shirts and three-button Henleys, about 20 jobs in all.

Although the payments were sometimes late, she said, she always was paid- that is, until the two orders in October 2006 and June 2007.

The first was for 49 Henley shirts with the logo "Freedom Schooner Amistad Crew" at a cost of $490, according to an invoice Bilda provided to The Day.

The June 2007 order totaled $2,745 and was for 300 T-shirts for the Amistad's 14,000-mile "Atlantic Freedom Tour" to Africa, England, Portugal, the Caribbean, Canada and a few eastern seaboard ports, according to the invoice.

The multi-colored shirts featured a map of the voyage, a picture of the ship, and the words: "Confronting the Past, Transforming the Future."

In October 2007, Bilda received a letter from former Amistad America President and CEO Greg Belanger, who wrote, "It is with sincere apologies that I am writing to you about our outstanding obligation."

In the letter, addressed to "Dear Sir or Madam," Belanger said he thought is was "important that I contact you personally and thank you for your patience regarding this matter."

He said that as the organization sails on its first trans-Atlantic voyage, it has "encountered some unexpected financial hurdles that we are actively overcoming."

He said Amistad America was "making every effort to pay the outstanding obligations as soon as possible" and asked if it were unable to pay the $3,235 in full, whether BMTees would be willing to set up a payment plan. Belanger had not figured in any interest in his total.

He wrote that he understood the effect of not being paid on time.

"It hurts us too that we have to write you and ask for your patience but I wanted to let you know that we are making every effort to resolve the matter as quickly as possible. A representative from our Finance Department will be contacting you within several days," he wrote.

Handwritten at the bottom of the typed letter was the following: "Thank you for your faith and we will take care of this soon. We value your friendship."

Bilda said she never heard from Amistad America after receiving the letter.

Belanger now heads the Maine-based Ocean Classroom Foundation. While serving as Amistad America president and CEO, he signed a deal with Ocean Classroom to operate the ship. He stepped down from his Amistad America post this summer. Belanger could not be reached to comment Tuesday.

j.wojtas@theday.com

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