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Amistad America to face state audit

One of the state's two auditors of public accounts said Wednesday that his office will review how Amistad America has spent money from the state Department of Economic and Community Development.

John Geragosian said he decided to conduct the review after reading in The Day about the concerns of state Rep. Diana Urban, D-North Stonington, who has been pressing DECD to detail exactly how Amistad America has spent $8 million in state funds.

He said his agency has been conducting a periodic review of DECD so it will now include Amistad America financing in that work. He said it could take six months to a year to complete the review, although an announcement could come earlier if his office discovers something unusual.

Urban, who has said she is not satisfied with the accounting DECD has provided her so far, is scheduled to meet this afternoon with DECD Commissioner Catherine Smith. Urban has said she would ask for a state audit if she left that meeting without the answers she seeks.

Urban said she was thrilled and gratified to see that Geragosian was undertaking the review because she said he understands how she has been trying to implement Results-Based Accountability for state agencies. Under this budgeting method, programs are funded only if data shows they are effective.

"This is the support I've been looking for," she said. "This sends a really strong message that things are changing. We're not in an economy where we can throw money around and not be accountable for it."

Amistad America lost its tax-exempt status after failing to file tax returns for three consecutive years. It is appealing that ruling.

The Amistad is in Maine, where it is being repaired and operated by the Maine-based Ocean Classroom Foundation.

Greg Belanger, the executive director of Amistad America who also is the director of Ocean Classroom, has said Amistad America has spent the state money wisely.

The schooner, which was built at Mystic Seaport and launched in 2000, originally sailed to ports around the country to tell the story of the Amistad captives who were freed in 1839. But it hasn't done that for several years.

The ship is set to be in New London next month to announce a partnership with Love 146, a New Haven-based nonprofit that raises awareness of human trafficking. Belanger said the partnership will expand the ship's message.

DECD plans to make payments totaling $359,000 a year to Amistad America over the next two years. It has said Amistad America is working on three "potentially transformative partnerships" but has not said how much money they could generate for the financially struggling organization.

In addition to those with Ocean Classroom and Love146, partnerships also include using the ship to film a 10-part NBC miniseries about the pirate Blackbeard in Puerto Rico later this year.


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