Amistad audit is late

This will probably come as no surprise to people who have become accustomed to dysfunction in Connecticut state government, but the Amistad audit, the one aimed at tracking all the millions in public money given to those who run the schooner, is officially overdue.

The $75,000 audit, Amistad followers might remember, which is being paid for by the state and overseen by the state Office of Policy and Management, was originally scheduled to be done by the start of November. It is already mid-November, and when I started calling around to state agencies with a stake in the Amistad fiasco I got pretty much the same answer: Check back in a few weeks.

Almost everyone, from U.S. Rep. Joe Courtney (Amistad got a lot of federal money, too) to state Attorney General George Jepsen, has said, since the bad news starting rolling out about Amistad, starting with its loss of nonprofit tax status after failing to file tax returns since 2009, that they'll decide what to do when an audit is finished.

That was an easy answer, as long as an audit was underway.

But the going may soon start to get a little rougher, once the audit report is in.

Of course, everyone would welcome a squeaky clean audit report in which all the money has been carefully accounted for.

This version of things would support the claims by the current executive director and her predecessor, who contend the money was spent legitimately keeping the ship afloat and, in the end, it will all be accounted for.

Of course the alternative to that outcome of the audit is probably what is spooking state officials.

If it isn't accounted for, what next?

People will expect something to happen.

I put in a call Tuesday to Hanifa Washington, the new Amistad director, who quite promptly returned my voicemail message.

It turns out Washington was more interested in finding out what I might know about the Amistad audit than sharing any good news.

"Of course I have a sense of where (the audit) is," Washington said, before sharply questioning me about what state officials told me about it.

After concluding the state hadn't disclosed anything from the audit, she ended the call.

"The audit is underway, and that is the only comment I have for The Day," she said.

Evidently, Washington and other Amistad officials hold a grudge against The Day for breaking the news that the ship, which had been in mothballs before more or less disappearing from the state, lost its nonprofit status for not filing tax returns.

The last return filed by Amistad America, essentially its last official accounting of where the money has gone, was for the 2008-09.

State officials said back in late summer that Amistad was expected to file its missing tax returns within 60 days.

A spokesman for the Internal Revenue Service said Tuesday the organization's nonprofit status has not been reinstated. I had not heard back by the end of the day an answer to my question about whether the tax returns have been filed, as the state said they would be.

Until we hear otherwise, I will suspend my inclination to disbelieve that all those years of bookkeeping can be recreated in a couple of months. After all, think how hard it is to put a year's financial information together for one year's tax return, even when you've been keeping careful records.

It was the state Department of Economic and Community Development that kept writing checks for hundreds of thousands of dollars to Amistad America year after year, fulfilling line item appropriations from the General Assembly, even though DECD officials knew tax returns weren't being filed.

I was most surprised when a DECD deputy commissioner told me earlier this year he was approving another $75,000 check, even after I told him the IRS had suspended the organization's nonprofit status. You would think that would have been a big enough red light.

That deputy commissioner, Kip Bergstrom, in a September interview with another state news organization, actually broached what has otherwise been the unmentionable outcome of the Amistad audit.

"Whether they were guilty of malfeasance, that's what the audit will determine," Bergstrom said.

And maybe, one of these months, we will know just what the audit, already overdue, has found.

This is the opinion of David Collins

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