Amistad America owes $2 million, court filing shows

Amistad America's outstanding debt totals more than $2 million, including a claim by its former executive director Greg Belanger that he is owed $139,000 in back pay and money owed to three members of its Board of Trustees who made loans to the organization, according to a court filing outlining numerous claims against the nonprofit group.

Among the many other creditors are Mystic Seaport, which says it is owed more than $45,000 for work and services it provided for the schooner Amistad over a six-year period, former captains and crew members, and numerous small businesses and organizations from around the country. Even the organization's attorney, Charles Filardi, is owed $111,000, according to the filing.

The financially troubled organization, which lost its nonprofit status for failing to file federal tax returns, is now in the hands of a state receiver. Just before he left Amistad America, Belanger leased the ship to his new employer, the Ocean Classroom Foundation of Maine. Last summer, the foundation closed because of financial problems.

"I have no interest in Greg Belanger or anyone on the Amistad America board getting paid for not doing their job. They should be getting in trouble, not getting paid," said state Rep. Diana Urban, D-North Stonington. "We're supposed to pay them now for messing up?"

Until this summer, Urban had been the lone member of the General Assembly calling on the state Department of Economic Development to force Amistad America to account for how it has spent $8 million in state funding. Her efforts led to the state halting its $390,000 in annual payments to the organization, a state audit and the appointment of a receiver.

The unofficial debt total of $2,017,609 owed to 50 groups or individuals is described in a court filing this week by state receiver Katharine Sack. She pointed out there could be other outstanding debts from people who have not yet come forward or are overseas. The total also does not include $404,000 in auditing fees, unpaid payroll taxes and debts incurred by Ocean Classroom Foundation on behalf of Amistad America. Sack stated the now defunct Ocean Classroom, whose executive director was Belanger, did not respond to requests for that information.

Urban said she was "aghast" at the total.

"I had no idea it would be that much. I thought they were patching things here and there, and had let $7,000 here, and $9,000 there, fall through the cracks," she said.

Urban also suggested that Amistad America's problems go beyond simple mismanagement of finances.

"How can we now say that this was just caused by mismanagement?" she said. "There seems to be more going on here than mismanagement. The common thread between Amistad America and the closure of Ocean Classroom Foundation is Mr. Belanger."

A few of the debts - such as the $10,205 owned to BMTees of Norwich, the $7,645 owed to a Bay City, Mich., tall ships festival the Amistad was paid to attend but never showed up for, as well as unpaid principal, interest and fees totaling $251,000 to TD Bank - were previously reported by The Day. But many others were unknown until this week's court filing.

Among these are the $45,277 owed to Mystic Seaport, which submitted "extremely detailed original invoices" for work it did on the ship from 2007 to 2012, according to the table of creditors.

The Seaport, which built the Amistad in its shipyard, released the following statement on Wednesday: "The debt incurred by Amistad America is for work Mystic Seaport did on the ship some years ago. We would like to recover those funds, but we recognize the realities of Amistad's financial predicament and we are supportive of the receiver's efforts to bring order to the situation and, to the extent possible, make good on the debts."

One of the trustees owed money is Bettye Fletcher of Waterford, who loaned Amistad America $17,000 in 2009.

The Amistad Committee of New Haven is owed $61,500 for a loan it made this year to Amistad America.

Bank of America is owed $282,000, while Belanger says he is owed $139,468 for his work as executive director in 2012. The filing said no documentation has been submitted for Belanger's claim. Former captain Sean Bercaw is owed $43,884 for 14 months of missing wages.

CBIA Health Connections says it is owed $3,810 for health, life and dental insurance it provided for Amistad America employees in July 2010. When Amistad America failed to pay the premium, the insurance was canceled.

The College of Charleston says it is owed $14,970 for room and board for conference accommodations in 2008. A Pittsburgh group is seeking the $20,000 advance it gave Amistad America from a state grant to visit and put on an educational program in 2007. The Amistad did not show and did not repay the money.

A Bethany man says he gave personal loans totaling $42,226 using cash and credit cards to Amistad America through a verbal agreement with Belanger and current executive director Hanifa Washington. The loans were not documented.

William Fischer has provided credit card, bank and brokerage statements and identified Amistad America charges in them to support his claims. Sack's report states it is hard to specifically connect some of the withdrawals and charges to the ship because many are from ATMs and supermarket purchases.

Urban also announced Wednesday she is preparing to introduce a bill in the upcoming legislative session that would require Amistad America to submit to a results-based budgeting report card each year. The report card, which Urban has convinced 27 state agencies to implement for one of their programs, requires them to provide data each year that show the success of a program so it can be evaluated for funding. This would prevent the type of problems that occurred with Amistad America, she said.

Urban, who is seeking other legislators to sign on to her bill, said state Rep. Ed Jutila, D-East Lyme, has agreed to do so.

Urban said what happened with Amistad America is ultimately the responsibility of the legislature. But she said it is up to agencies like the state Department of Economic and Community Development to inform the legislature of any problems with a group receiving state money, which she said did not happen in the case of Amistad America.

Urban, who said she will continue her efforts to make sure Amistad America repays small businesses, said she expects Sack to get Amistad America back on course.

"I want to re-establish support for Amistad America because its story and message are very important to the kids and people of Connecticut," she aid.

j.wojtas@theday.com

Twitter: @joewojtas

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