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Gov. Malloy: Seize the Amistad

By David Collins

Publication: The Day

Published July 02. 2014 4:00AM

You have to wonder when the administration of Gov. Dannel Malloy will finally do something to save the Amistad, which has come to be a symbol of the dysfunction of Connecticut government.

Why isn't the governor embarrassed that the ship, which the people of Connecticut paid for, has been hijacked right under the government's nose?

Not only has it become an apt symbol of government waste and incompetence, but what's happening is an enormous insult to the state's black community, whose history is also being hijacked.

The state spent millions to build the Amistad to bring to life the remarkable story, a Connecticut story, about the brave souls, once kept captive for the slave market in the hold of the Amistad, who broke their chains and earned freedom in American courts.

The Day reported more than a year ago that Amistad America, the nonprofit that was given responsibility for the ship when it was first built, has lost its nonprofit status with the Internal Revenue Service for not filing tax returns for more than three consecutive years.

The IRS issues specific warnings to taxpayers about organizations like this, noting, at the very least, contributions to them are no longer tax deductible.

Nevertheless, the state, on autopilot, has been dutifully wire transferring payments to the organization, almost $400,000 a year, right on time, as recently as this spring.

Oddly, you can also still buy an Amistad Connecticut license plate, one astute reader pointed out this week.

Never mind that Amistad America has lost its federal nonprofit status, it has also stopped filing annual reports with the Connecticut secretary of the state, as is required of incorporated entities.

A spokesman for the secretary of the state told me Tuesday that a new state law will soon allow the state to move to officially dissolve organizations that don't file annual reports. Amistad America hasn't filed one for three years.

The legal organization is apparently defunct. There is no functioning board of directors. It is not filing tax returns or annual business reports with the state.

There is, I discovered this week, a revived website, one filled with what seems like, well, propaganda. The website does a lot of retelling of the Amistad story, which the ship hasn't done in a long time, rented out instead as a film prop and as a training ship for young people.

The new website also asks for "support" to help maintain the ship and gives an email link to do that. There is no warning that contributions are not tax deductible.

The new website is also promoting summer camp sessions for high school students, up to $1,000 a head, starting July 14. And yet when I checked with the Office of Early Childhood, the Connecticut agency responsible for licensing and regulating summer camps for young people under 16, they said they have no application for licensing from any organization named Amistad.

Well, governor, this sure looks like it could be more flouting of Connecticut rules and laws. Nothing to be done?

The puppeteer pulling the strings that drew Amistad right out of Connecticut was Greg Belanger, the Amistad America chief executive officer before he moved to a new executive director job at Ocean Classroom, a sail training institute in Maine. He took Amistad right with him to Ocean Classroom, as if he owned it himself.

Belanger and the current executive director of Amistad America, whom Belanger appointed in the wake of the no-tax return stories, which noted he seemed to have a conflict in working for both organizations, have long stopped returning my phone calls.

Amistad turned up this month in New Haven, at its old city-sponsored pier, a forlorn spot alongside Interstate 95. Amistad arrived with no announcement and no fanfare and skipped a scheduled visit to the Wooden Boat Show at Mystic Seaport last weekend.

There was no public access and just a few crew members on deck this week in New Haven. The ship looks tired. A mate acknowledged it needs work. It's been on the move a lot, he said.

Come on governor. Connecticut can do better than this. Surely there is legal standing to intervene and get back what we paid for.

After all, the wonderful museum that built Amistad, a pride of Connecticut, would surely welcome Amistad home and make sure she is equipped to begin telling again, in Connecticut ports, New London for one, the story that the people of Connecticut wanted told.

This is the opinion of David Collins

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