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Who is at the helm of the Amistad?

Published July 10. 2014 4:00AM

Tuesday's petulant announcement by the executive director and chief executive officer of Amistad America that the schooner would not be visiting New London during this weekend's Sailfest celebration, as had been promised, is the latest sad chapter in a long, troubled tale that underscores the need for a full accounting of how $8 million in state funds for the vessel has been spent.

It was just a year ago that Hanifa Washington replaced Greg Belanger as head of the Amistad operation amid growing concerns about its finances. At the time she promised to rebuild Amistad America's board of directors and draw up a plan to pay for the ship's $1 million annual expenses and become less reliant on taxpayer money.

"We can't depend on the $359,000 a year we get from the state. We don't want people to think the only reason we're here is because of state money," she said after taking over last July.

Aware then of criticism over whether the Amistad - built at Mystic Seaport as a replica of a Spanish ship on which 53 kidnapped Africans revolted in 1839 and were liberated two years later after a trial in New Haven - had been faithfully fulfilling its freedom-promoting mission, Ms. Washington pledged, "We want to be transparent about the ship, where it is and what it is doing."

These words ring hollow in light of the emails Ms. Washington sent to Barbara Neff, executive director of the Downtown New London Association, which hosts Sailfest, and to The Day.

"The Freedom Schooner Amistad will be unable to attend Sailfest this week," Ms. Washington wrote to Ms. Neff. "This comes as a tremendous setback for us. There are a variety of acute factors fueling this decision." She did not elaborate.

In a separate email to a Day editor, Ms. Washington lambasted the newspaper's extensive coverage of Amistad's problems, which she said contributed to the decision not to bring it to New London.

I would kindly ask that your staff not assume they have the right to board the vessel. It is a privilege that your staff has now lost. I can not have my crew subjugated to the malice interrogation of your staff. The crew care for and sail the ship and are not to be quoted in regards to the operations of the organization and its past," she added.

For more than a year The Day has reported and editorialized about Amistad's lack of fiscal oversight. Among the problems uncovered was the fact that Amistad America lost its Internal Revenue Service nonprofit status for repeatedly failing to file tax returns. In addition, the organization's board of directors was defunct.

This newspaper - along with taxpayers - continue to demand answers from state officials who for the most part inexplicably appear indifferent. Last year the state authorized a $78,000 audit to track the Amistad funding, but the report is months overdue with no indication of any progress.

Democratic state Rep. Diana Urban of North Stonington, one of the few lawmakers to address the Amistad's problems, has been especially angry about small businesses and organizations that have filed liens against the ship's organization because of long-overdue bills for goods and services. In the last legislative session she tried but failed to connect an Amistad "report card" to the state budget.

Thus far only Republican state Sen. Len Fasano of North Haven has weighed in, urging the state to stop making annual payments to Amistad America until questions about its finances have been answered. Why haven't other lawmakers, particularly those from New London, where the Amistad had promised to spend part of the summer and be open for tours, and from Mystic, where it was built, jumped on board?

This newspaper continues to believe Amistad can serve as an educational ambassador, telling an important story about fundamental human rights. We and the public would enjoy nothing more than to see the ship sail to various ports and spread its inspirational message.

The schooner would have been a welcome addition to this weekend's Sailfest. In addition Amistad failed to show up in New London last month, as scheduled, and also skipped a planned appearance at Mystic Seaport's Wooden Boat Show.

The ship did manage, though, to sail last winter to the Caribbean during filming of a TV series about pirates, and later filmed a series for the Canadian Broadcasting Co. in Nova Scotia.

The Amistad must be righted, with a reliable hand at the helm.

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