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Bogus Amistad reports received no scrutiny

By DIANA URBAN

Publication: The Day

Published August 29. 2013 4:00AM

The story of the Amistad is truly inspirational and should be shared and celebrated with our children. When I found out that Amistad America Inc. (AAI) had not filed their 990 tax return form for three years, I was incredulous. How could our Department of Economic and Community Development (DECD), which had oversight of the state money allocated to this icon, allow it to get a whisper away from default? And how could a board of directors not have success in seeking out private foundation dollars to develop an endowment to insure the future of this historic symbol of the abolitionist movement?

It did not take long to find out. As a strong advocate in the Connecticut General Assembly for an accountability framework known as RBA - Results Based Accountability - I knew exactly where to look. Aided by some superb reporting work by The Day, the picture emerged and it was not pretty

RBA would have nipped the precipitous financial decline of AAI in the bud.

A review of the directed Local Funds Application - a narrative that Amistad American Inc. had to file each year with the Department of Economic and Community Development - revealed disturbing problems. The application contains such questions as: How will this funding benefit the citizens of Connecticut? Describe how you will evaluate the success of the activities? Presumably the answers would provide some information on the fiscal health of the organization.

I reviewed this paperwork on a flight from Providence to Fort Lauderdale - three and one-half hours - not a Herculean task, even though I looked at 2004 through 2012.

What did I find out?

I found sections of the Local Direct Funds Application, which is used to justify continued funding of state dollars, were literally copied and pasted from year to year, but not always carefully. A 2009 report still contained the year 2007 in the narrative. The person preparing the application apparently forgot, or did not bother, to change the date! Even a cursory review would have revealed this spurious reporting immediately. I can only conclude that no one at DECD was actually perusing these reports.

Had AAI been under the auspices of the Results Based Accountability Subcommittee of Appropriations they would have had to answer three simple questions: How much did you do? How well did you do it? And is anyone better off? An RBA "Report Card" is limited to two pages - succinct, transparent and accountable.

As things stands now the Directed Local Fund Application reports make it difficult to even find verifiable data points. Claims made about activities in one year are not verified in the next year. In my review, it was very clear that there were major financial problems in 2007 and it continued to get worse. And yet, we just kept giving AAI state funds.

I also found what appears to be an endowment that was spent. In reviewing the paperwork I can only conclude that it was spent to take the trip across the Atlantic to Sierra Leone because AAI had run out of money. While there they apparently appealed to a local organization for a grant to get home, which this private organization very rightly denied.

What is the bottom line? I fear that the Directed Local Funds Application for the Amistad is just the beginning. Certainly there are other programs receiving significant state aid that are not adequately monitored and therefore not accountable to the taxpayer

The answer? I have been championing RBA for eight years, I have been named a Public Official of the Year for my work in accountability and to the Hall of Fame of the Consortium of Community Indicators and yet progress in Connecticut is still slow. A major breakthrough is the Ct Kids Report Card ( www.ctkidsreportcard.org) where you can see what a commitment to accountability can achieve. Commissioner Joette Katz at the Department of Children and Families has committed to becoming a full RBA agency. In three years DCF, by embracing RBA, has been able to move numbers that have been stuck for 30 years.

In this economic climate we cannot afford any lack of accountability for taxpayer dollars. AAI has agreed to move forward under RBA. I will hold them to that commitment.

Diana Urban is a Connecticut state representative. Her 43rd District consists of Stonington and North Stonington.

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