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DECD deputy commissioner named Amistad guru

It was March 2011 when Gov. Dannel Malloy took to a lectern to introduce Christopher "Kip" Bergstrom, the former Stamford urban redevelopment director for the governor when he was mayor there, as the new head of Connecticut's Commission of Culture and Tourism.

Soon after, the culture and tourism commission, in a Malloy agency reshuffle, became part of the state Department of Economic and Community Development, and Bergstrom became a $135,000-a-year deputy DECD commissioner.

What a difference four years can make.

Last month, Bergstrom quietly - no press releases or press conferences this time - moved over to the state Office of Policy and Management, where his single assignment, according to an OPM spokesman, is to help come up with a future plan for the schooner Amistad.

His new post will be part time, 30 hours a week, in an OPM job listed as durational project manager, which has a full-time annual salary of $80,000 a year, the OPM spokesman said.

The move surprises me in light of some internal DECD emails, recently disclosed in response to a Freedom of Information request, in which Bergstrom emerges as an ally of the former director of the failed Amistad America.

Bergstrom, who was in charge of the state's funding for Amistad America through the DECD, agreed with a request of the Amistad director that together they develop "talking points" to manage the outfall from news stories that the nonprofit hadn't filed tax returns for three years.

Bergstrom also lobbied the DECD commissioner to withhold information about Amistad America's creditors from a legislator who had asked for it.

He railed in emails about the press coverage of Amistad's lack of accountability.

And he worked to keep open the state spigot of money to the defunct organization, funding that continued for a full year after the public learned it had lost its nonprofit status.

In advocating for continuing funding of Amistad America, the emails show, Bergstrom knew that the organization had totally flouted state rules requiring annual audits for four years. Indeed, even as the money kept flowing, Bergstrom knew the organization had little or no accounting records or controls.

He also knew that, even as Connecticut continued to fund the ship, it had been moved to Maine, run by a separate nonprofit that was also paying the Amistad America director a salary.

In the real world, of course, these things probably would have gotten him fired.

In Malloy world, apparently, they led only to a lateral move, arguably a demotion.

But it is hard to imagine why anyone would pick the person in government most responsible for the state's miserable response to the Amistad debacle to be in charge of finding a way out.

But someone did.

It also doesn't look like anyone is going to look too hard into the question of where all those millions of dollars in state and federal aid to Amistad went. The audits the state paid $78,000 for raised more questions than they answered, since many of the numbers were based on "verbal reports" rather than actual written records.

I put a call in to the governor's press office, inquiring about the strange appointment of Bergstrom as the state's new Amistad point person. But I didn't get a call back.

Another thing that emerged from the DECD Amistad emails is that Bergstrom and DECD Commissioner Catherine Smith, who sometimes scolded Bergstrom about things like the way in which he addressed a legislator, did not appear to get along very well.

New Haven attorney Katharine Sacks, who was appointed by a Superior Court judge to be receiver of Amistad America, has reportedly appointed a 12-member committee to help steer a future course for the ship, which is now under a winter cover at Mystic Seaport. The committee includes Bergstrom and at least one official from New Haven government.

Indeed, the deck seems stacked for New Haven in deciding Amistad's fate, in light of the fact that New Haven legislators were also kept in a DECD loop of emails, as the organization's failure became public.

I don't know that eastern Connecticut's interests are represented, and that's too bad in light of the fact that the Amistad dock in New Haven, dredged at the cost of $1.5 million by the state, has silted back in and can no longer accommodate the ship, which must now sit at the bottom there at low tide, hard alongside Interstate 95.

I put in a call to receiver Sacks to ask about the committee secretly deciding Amistad's fate but didn't get a call back.

Whatever they decide to do with it, though, the money could be waiting, if the governor has his way. His budget, which cut funding for a wide variety of arts and cultural institutions, still has a separate line item for Amistad with close to $400,000.

And of course we now know the state has hired someone at the rate of close to $80,000 a year to spend 30 hours a week to decide what to do with the ship.

But maybe that money is being spent because they didn't know what to do with Bergstrom.

This is the opinion of David Collins

d.collins@theday.comn

Twitter: @DavidCollinsct

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