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Governor's office seeking update on Amistad status

By Joe Wojtas

Publication: The Day

Published 09/06/2013 12:00 AM
Updated 09/06/2013 12:25 AM
Letter asks about foundation's spending, ship's time in state

Gov. Dannel P. Malloy's chief of staff has sent a letter to the state Department of Economic and Community Development requesting information by Tuesday on the actions it is taking to address issues with the financial and nonprofit status of Amistad America.

Mark Ojakian's letter to DECD Commissioner Catherine Smith comes after months of criticism of the department and of Amistad America by state Rep. Diana Urban, D-North Stonington, as well as reporting by The Day on the lack of information about how Amistad America has spent the nearly $8 million it has received from the state.

In recent years, Amistad America has found it difficult to pay its bills at times and lost its nonprofit status after failing to file tax returns in three consecutive years.

The state has hired a firm to audit the organization, and a lawyer is helping Amistad America develop a list of businesses and other groups to which it still owes money.

"It has recently come to my attention that questions have been raised about the operations of Amistad America based upon their receipt of state grant funding," Ojakian wrote in his Wednesday letter to Smith. "Specific questions have also been raised about the vessel's absence from Connecticut. The state of Connecticut has made significant investments in support of the operations of Amistad America and it is necessary to have appropriate assurances that the funding supports the Amistad America mission."

He added: "It is my understanding that your agency and the Office of Policy and Management have taken actions to address issues related to Amistad America's financial and non-profit status. I am requesting that you provide me with an update of those efforts and an action plan containing additional steps you feel necessary to assure the proper level of accountability for grant funds appropriated for the current fiscal year. I am also requesting that you make recommendations to improve the accountability for these grant funds and grant funds allotted to other organizations through your agency."

Neither Ojakian nor Urban could be reached for comment Thursday.

During the period in question, Amistad America was run by Greg Belanger, who now heads the Maine-based Ocean Classroom Foundation. While serving as Amistad America's president and CEO, he signed a deal with Ocean Classroom to operate the Amistad ship, which is owned by Amistad America. He stepped down from his Amistad America post this summer to assume his position at with Ocean Classroom.

The Amistad is now on its way to Puerto Rico to film a television miniseries for the rest of the year. The trip has angered Urban because it comes during hurricane season and she has questioned how the taxpayers' investment will be protected if something happens to the ship.

Tropical Storm Gabrielle hit Puerto Rico Thursday with strong winds and heavy rain.

Hanifah Washington, the new executive director of Amistad America, could not be reached for comment late Thursday.

j.wojtas@theday.com

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