Amistad group plans 'good faith payment' on $7,000 owed to Norwich business for shirts

Editor's Note: This corrects an earlier version.

A small Norwich screenprinting and embroidery business that Amistad America owes more than $7,000 to may finally be getting paid after eight years of being ignored by the organization.

State Rep. Diana Urban, D-North Stonington, said that she called an Amistad America attorney this week and was told that BMTees Inc. would receive a "good faith payment" within seven days. It is unclear if that will be the entire amount or a partial payment. The attorney who is handling the unpaid bills, Charles Filardi of New Haven, did not respond to a phone call seeking comment.

BMTees is among a group of small businesses who say they were never paid by Amistad America, the financially troubled organization that continues to receive large amounts of state funding despite losing its tax-exempt status for failing to file federal tax returns and being the target of a state audit to determine how it spent $8 million in state funds.

Debra Bilda, the owner of BMTees of Taftville, said Monday she had not yet been contacted by Amistad America.

"When it happens, I'll believe it," she said.

Urban, who has pushed the state Department of Economic and Community Development to account for how Amistad America has spent its state funding, has also pressed Amistad America to make good on its debts to small businesses.

Urban said Monday she is sure more businesses "are going to come out of the woodwork."

"If Amistad America is getting state money, they can pay these small businesses," Urban said. "Whoever is owed money should get it."

Urban said Bilda and others should receive their debt plus interest.

In 2006 and 2007, BMTees made 349 shirts for Amistad America. Over the next 16 months, Bilda made repeated calls to the nonprofit seeking the more than $4,000 she was owed. BMTees finally wrote off the debt - a significant hit for the small operation.

Many of Bilda's calls were ignored and promises to pay were never kept. This year, she said she emailed Amistad Executive Director Hanifa Washington, who took over last year, seeking payment but did not receive a response.

As of last summer, the interest and fees that have been accruing totaled more than $7,000.

Meanwhile, the state of Connecticut continues to work on its audit of Amistad America's finances under former president and CEO Greg Belanger.

Belanger now heads the Maine-based Ocean Classroom Foundation. While heading Amistad America, he signed a deal with Ocean Classroom to operate the ship. He stepped down from his Amistad America post last summer.

The Day has made several unsuccessful attempts since December to discuss the ship's 2015 plans with Washington. The Amistad America website shows the ship will visit ports such as New Haven, Boston and Bridgeport this summer and attend a schooner festival in New London in September.

The Amistad spent last winter in Puerto Rico and the Caribbean filming a television series and is now in Shelburne, Nova Scotia, filming a miniseries for the Canadian Broadcasting Company based on the novel "Book of Negroes."

j.wojtas@theday.com

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