Urban to call for dissolution of Amistad America board of directors

Mystic — State Rep. Diana Urban, who has pushed the state Department of Economic and Community Development to explain how Amistad America has spent more than $8 million in state funding, will call on the state this morning to force Amistad America to dissolve its current board of directors.

The North Stonington Democrat plans to make the recommendation during a press conference at 11 a.m. at Mystic River Park, the place she says the ship should be later this week for the start of the Connecticut Schooner Festival. Instead, it is in Puerto Rico preparing to film an NBC miniseries about the pirate Blackbeard. The work is estimated to generate $250,000 in revenue for Amistad America.

The trip has also 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.

"The ship is not fulfilling its mission. It's Connecticut's ship. It should be here," she said Tuesday night.

New Amistad America Executive Director Hanifa Washington has pledged going forward to have the ship in state waters for the warm weather months.

Meanwhile, Gov. Dannel P. Malloy's office did not respond Tuesday to a request for a report due that day from DECD outlining the actions being taken to address issues with the financial and nonprofit status of Amistad America. Urban said she had not seen a copy of the report.

Malloy's Chief of Staff Mark Ojakian sent a letter to DECD Commissioner Catherine Smith last week requesting the report after months of criticism of the department and Amistad America by Urban and reporting by The Day on the lack of information about how Amistad America has spent the nearly $8 million in taxpayer money.

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 for three consecutive years. 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 with Ocean Classroom.

The state is paying a firm $75,000 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. The $75,000 will be deducted from the $700,000 Amistad America is slated to receive from the state over the next two years.

"I think the time has come for the state of Connecticut to step up and say 'enough is enough,'" Urban said.

Urban said there is group of people, including former Amistad crew members who are "ready and willing" to serve on a reconstituted board of directors.

"We need people who understand finance, fundraising and running a boat," she said.

She said the potential board members are ready to use their connections on Wall Street and in the business and entertainment industry to build the organization's endowment.

Urban, who has spent years pushing state officials to only fund programs that can provide data to show they are successful, said the lack of oversight DECD has shown over Amistad America makes her wonder how many other programs are run the same way.

"This is what destroy's people's faith in government," she said.

j.wojtas@theday.com

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