Amistad was awash in federal money, too

It turns out the people running the schooner Amistad not only took some $8 million in funding from Connecticut, before the ship was spirited away to Maine, but also accepted millions of dollars in federal funding.

It's not clear just how much federal money went to the ship after it was launched in Mystic in 2000, but there are indications it was a lot, more than a couple of million dollars.

The organization that owns the ship failed to file federal tax returns for three consecutive years and has lost its nonprofit tax status, The Day reported earlier this year.

Connecticut officials, from the administration of Gov. Dannel Malloy to Attorney General George Jepsen, all suggest they are awaiting to see the results of a state-ordered audit, due in November, before deciding what to do about the all the unaccounted-for Connecticut money.

The governor's chief of staff, hands seemingly on his hips, recently issued a stern public demand of the state Department of Economic and Community Development, asking what's going on with the Amistad.

This was a strange action by the governor's chief of staff, who seemed to be trying to put distance between himself and the governor and a department squarely under the governor's control. It was like a rebuke you would issue to some foreign government, not one you run.

Catherine Smith, DECD commissioner, dutifully answered the governor's demand for an accounting with a long memo in which she concluded there was little her agency could do to hold Amistad officials accountable, since the money was allocated by the legislature.

Really?

Her agency couldn't have at least stopped the last check, issued even after this newspaper reported the organization had been stripped of its nonprofit status.

Turns out the agency had kept writing checks all along, even after they knew the organization had stopped filing tax returns. Don't they have phones? Couldn't they have called someone in the General Assembly and suggested no more allocations.

Amistad, it turns out, has been on the automatic funding program not just in Hartford but in Washington, too.

Smith's memo said Amistad's financial crisis began with the end of federal earmarks.

"At the peak of federal earmarks, Amistad America received $2.2 million in federal funds, 80 percent of a $2.7 million budget," Smith wrote.

I asked a DECD spokesman for some clarification of this. He said the department assumes that the $2.2 million was in a single year but the department has no idea from the Amistad reports what year it was or how much federal money was given in other years.

I put out calls to some members of the state's congressional delegation asking about federal money that has been issued to Amistad's parent organization over the years, but didn't get much response.

A spokesman for U.S. Rep John Larson took down my questions but never got back to me.

This is interesting, because clearly Larson should know quite a bit about Amistad and its funding. Fredrica Gray, the longtime chairwoman of the Amistad America board, who has presided over its financial accounting blackout and move to Maine, was once a prominent adviser to Larson's unsuccessful campaign for governor, launched after he left the state Senate.

On the House floor in 2001, Larson gave an eloquent plea for some $850,000 in a Labor, Health and Human Services appropriation for Amistad. He specifically cited Gray's management of the organization in his remarks to Congress.

Larson also joined Gray for publicity pictures when the Amistad returned from its voyage to Africa.

A spokeswoman for U.S. Rep. Rosa DeLauro did not get back to me either. DeLauro issued press releases in 2005 and 2006, announcing almost $600,000 in new federal funds for the ship.

The staff at U.S. Rep. Joseph Courtney's office directed me to a website, usaspending.gov, which indicated the Amistad received $3.1 million in federal grants between 2002 and 2008.

That tally doesn't cite the $850,000 Larson was advocating for in 2001, though. The summary of various grants also doesn't explain how Amistad got $2.2 million in a single year, as DECD officials seem to believe.

"The ongoing audit is an important first step in restoring Connecticut's confidence in the ship, its mission, and the investment the state and federal taxpayers have made in it," Courtney said in a statement issued in response to my questions.

No matter what happens next, it seems clear that Amistad will remain a good lesson for a long time on how little accountability there can be for government spending on private organizations.

Commissioner Smith's claim that she had no control over the Amistad money could apply to countless other organizations given many millions of dollars by the General Assembly.

It's beginning to look like a lot of it goes into a dark hole.

The auditors are at work, and a final report should be in soon indicating what happened to all the public money that went to Amistad. Or maybe there won't be clear answers.

And a lot of public officials appear to be running already, like, well, rats from a sinking ship.

This is the opinion of David Collins

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