Lawmakers push for Amistad probe

Friday's announcement of the pending closure of Maine-based Ocean Classroom Foundation, a management partner of the financially strapped schooner Amistad, prompted two local lawmakers to renew their call for the state attorney general to get involved.

State Reps. Diana Urban, D-North Stonington, and Ted Moukawsher, D-Groton, said Saturday that the state should not wait for the completion of a long-awaited audit of Amistad America, which owns the vessel, to launch an investigation into whether some
$8 million in state grants to the organization were misappropriated.

Ocean Classroom Foundation, headed by former Amistad America Executive Director Gregory Belanger, announced Friday that it would close at the end of this summer. In a story in the Bangor Daily News, Belanger cited extensive and expensive repairs needed to the organization's three vessels - not including the Amistad - as the reason for the closure.

Ocean Classroom's agreement with Amistad America Inc., which owns the schooner that is designated "Connecticut's official flagship," specified that Amistad would pay Ocean Classroom $5,000 per month for insurance, crew and other marine services, a Connecticut Department of Economic and Community Development spokesman told the Bangor Daily News.

Both organizations list the partnership on their websites. Amistad America's site describes it as "an agreement to cooperatively manage the Freedom Schooner Amistad."

Belanger told the Bangor paper that the Amistad agreement was not the cause of Ocean Classroom's demise.

"Were there challenges because they were not able to make all their payments, which impacted our cash flow management? Yes," Belanger said. "But Amistad's contract was not the cause of Ocean Classroom's systemic financial problems."

The relationship between the two organizations and the apparent lack of oversight by the state has concerned Urban. On Saturday, she said she would send a letter to state Attorney General George Jepson asking him to investigate the relationship, as well as Belanger's past affiliation with Amistad America and his current status with Ocean Classroom.

"It's amazing to me that Greg Belanger was the director of the Ocean Classroom Foundation and he absconded with the (Amistad) to Maine," Urban said, "and the same thing that is happening to the Amistad is happening in Maine. I think it should be investigated by the attorney general."

Amistad America has received nearly $400,000 per year in state grant money despite having failed to file federal tax returns and annual reports due to the secretary of the state's office.

A state-ordered audit to determine how the foundation spent $8 million in state funds is nearly eight months overdue.

Part of the audit would include a review of how Amistad America cleared a $280,000 loan from TD Bank in 2010. The bank had placed a lien on the ship for nonpayment in July 2010, but released the lien seven months later, according to U.S. Coast Guard records.

"I think it's time that the attorney general take a serious look at who actually has jurisdiction over the Amistad," Urban said. "I and Rep. Ted Moukawsher plan on sending a letter to the attorney general's office asking for clarification on who might take over management of the ship with the Ocean Classroom Foundation closing its doors. It is important that we get an answer to this question as soon as possible because we do not want to run the risk of losing Connecticut's official flagship."

Moukawsher also questioned whether the contract between Amistad and Ocean Classroom could be considered part of Ocean Classroom's assets in any future financial claims against the Maine organization.

"My understanding is when something goes under, they start looking for any asset," he said. "Is the Amistad an asset of Ocean Classroom Foundation? I don't know, but I want my attorney general to look into it."

c.bessette@theday.com

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