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Malloy-Jepsen vs. Amistad pirates: The pirates are winning

It is troubling that so many state bureaucrats and lawmakers keep focusing on an audit of Amistad America, the former nonprofit that kept taking state money for years, right through this spring, without filing income tax returns.

Yes, millions of dollars, both federal and state, appear to be unaccounted for, and getting to the bottom of where all that money went is important.

But why haven't Gov. Dannel Malloy and Attorney General George Jepsen, the state's lawyer, done something to get back control of the ship, which the state spent $2.5 million to build?

If the long-awaited audit is ever done - since November, Malloy bureaucrats, week after week, have been saying it will be finished next week - and it shows any kind of malfeasance, the appropriate criminal investigation should begin.

But even in the unlikely event that the audit of years of unexplained state funds shows only extraordinary bookkeeping sloppiness, the ship still should be turned over to a responsible organization, one capable of obeying laws, like those requiring tax returns, and fulfilling the original mission of retelling the remarkable story of the Amistad rebellion, now in its 175th anniversary year.

The state only finally shut off state subsidies last month, more than a year after I first reported that Amistad America had lost its federal tax-exempt status, had shut down its website and no longer had a Connecticut address, phone number or a board of directors.

Amistad America, which has also stopped filing annual reports with the secretary of the state, has existed in recent years apparently only as a siphon of state funding.

Hanifa Washington, the former Amistad cook, was appointed executive director of Amistad America by Greg Belanger, who served in the job until last year, when I reported that he was double dipping as executive director of the Maine sailing school he had turned the ship over to.

I don't know what it would take to convince the attorney general and governor that Ms. Washington seems to have no more legal authority to run Amistad than I do.

She is the former cook appointed by the double-dipping former executive director of a nonprofit that seems to no longer legally exist.

And yet, alas, we hear from legislators, Malloy bureaucrats and the dim staff of the attorney general that we should hope for some "new governance" of Amistad America.

In this make-nice world, apparently, the organization will begin filing tax returns again, will pay back all the people it owes money to while Ms. Washington will make sure the ship goes wherever Malloy orders it. Then the state spigot will open back up again.

"While the pace of efforts is understandably frustrating, we believe (Office of Policy and Management and Department of Economic and Community Development) are actively working to assess and correct the Amistad situation," Deputy Attorney General Perry Zinn Rowthorn wrote in a statement, after I called Jepsen's office to ask about the wayward organization.

"We do not believe legal action by the attorney general at this time would be warranted and constructive, and indeed at this stage could be counterproductive."

Honestly, if that were my attorney, knowing what I do, I would fire him.

I understand some of the deputy attorney general's reluctance to do anything. It is a complicated legal issue since the DECD signed over the state's lien on the ship, a lien securing the initial $2.5 million construction costs.

This lien release was done in 2010, the first year for which Amistad America stopped filing tax returns. The state released the lien in October 2010 amid other troubling warning signs, including a column I wrote in July 2010 reporting that a bank had filed a $280,000 lien against the ship, a debt that seemed to violate the financing agreement with the state.

It seems there should have been better lawyering done when that lien was released.

Even worse than the hand-over-ears approach to the problem by the governor and attorney general was the recent legislators' kiss-a-pirate event aboard Amistad in New London, when Rep. Diana Urban of North Stonington led what looked, sadly, like a welcome party for Washington.

The North Stonington lawmaker should stop thanking the organization for paying a paltry $500 of a long-overdue $8,000 bill from a T-shirt company and focus on getting the ship back.

There is little doubt in my mind that Mystic Seaport, which built the ship, could quickly make it available to the public, maybe part of the time in New London and New Haven, and tell the story well.

I suspect the museum could develop a program that would help teach a new generation of Connecticut schoolchildren about the role their state played in outlawing slavery.

They could do it with input from a board of advisers, broadly representing the community, including the state's descendants of slaves.

They might spend less than the state has been paying the former cook, who has been busy renting out the ship and keeping it out of the state over the last year, while still collecting state money. And they certainly could account for where the money was spent.

Responsibility. Reliability. Accountability.

These apparently aren't virtues the governor and attorney general are used to seeking out.

This is the opinion of David Collins


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