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Amistad legislation would give state DOT control of schooner's operation

A group of Democratic state legislators from the New Haven area has introduced a bill that would make the state Department of Transportation responsible for the operation and maintenance of the schooner Amistad.

In another development related to the historic replica ship, its state-appointed receiver, New Haven attorney Katharine Sacks, said Thursday she has assembled a dozen experts in various fields such as nonprofit organizations and tall ships to come up with viable options to safeguard the public interest in the ship and promote the ship and its special story.

Sacks said the committee, scheduled to meet for the first time on Feb. 18, will work to "redirect the mission of the ship to function long-term in an accountable and modest way that serves the public interest and the status of the ship as the state's flagship."

Sacks said she was not aware of the bill introduced by the New Haven legislators, but welcomed legislative proposals that could be integrated with the suggestions made by her committee. If a judge feels her plan is sound, Sacks said, she hopes to transfer title of the ship to a new operational entity after the state budget is approved later this year.

"My feeling is the ship is a statewide asset, and we should encourage ownership statewide," she said. "Regardless of its homeport it needs to be visible and get around the state."

The Amistad, which is spending the winter at Mystic Seaport, has been homeported in New Haven, where the legislative delegation was silent last year after state Rep. Diana Urban, D-North Stonington, raised questions about how Amistad America spent more than $9 million in state funding and lost its tax-exempt status for failing to file three years of tax returns. Urban also questioned why the state Department of Economic and Community Development failed to monitor how Amistad America spent the funds when there were clear signs the organization was in financial distress.

Just one of the bill's nine co-sponsors, Rep. Patricia Dillon, D-New Haven, responded to questions from The Day about House Bill 6712. Dillon said she did not know much about the bill but had signed on "as a courtesy" because it is part of package of legislation being introduced by the New Haven delegation. She added "there is a strong constituency to preserve the history of the Amistad."

In addition to Dillon, sponsors of the DOT bill are state Reps. Juan Candelaria, Toni Walker, Robyn Porter, Roland Lemar and Robert Megna and state Sens. Martin Looney and Gary Winfield. Looney is the Senate president pro tempore.

The bill would have "the operation and maintenance of the flagship Amistad be part of the budgeted duties of the Department of Transportation" and would "ensure that Connecticut's official state flagship be operational and maintained in excellent condition."

It is unknown how much the bill, if made law, would cost taxpayers. The state has been giving Amistad America about $400,000 a year in funding but it costs $1 million or more to pay for its crew, fuel, supplies, maintenance, educational programs and trips to other ports. It is also unknown if the state would pay off the ship's $2 million in debt, who will own the ship, if it would travel and where it would be homeported.

Sacks has said some of the claims against the ship are maritime liens, which are filed in federal court, and if pursued can make it difficult to transfer title of the ship to a successor organization.

Meanwhile Urban has introduced a bill with state Rep. Ed Jutila, D-East Lyme, that would make Amistad America subject to Results Based Accountability standards. RBA is a method of budgeting championed by Urban with some success in which a state agency has to provide data that proves a program is successful in order to receive state funding. The bill is being co-sponsored by Rep. Aundre Bumgardner, R-Groton.

"I introduced this legislation as I am really concerned about the accountability of funds allocated to the Amistad and the payment of money owed to our small businesses," Urban said in an email.

Urban has pushed Amistad America to pay off its debt, especially to small businesses that have been owed money for years. Her questions led to the state attorney general auditing the organization and appointing Sacks to oversee its finances and come up with a plan that includes turning it over to a new organization.

Urban said Thursday that an error had been made in the wording of her bill, House Bill 5648, after she submitted it. In its current form the bill calls for the evaluation of expenditures from the Amistad Commemorative Account, which comes from the sale of Amistad license plates. Urban said she would be contacting legislative officials to correct the error.

Urban said she had heard rumors of a DOT bill but that no one from the New Haven delegation had contacted her about it. Both bills are now before the Transportation Committee, which is expected to hold public hearings. No dates have been set.

In November, Sacks told a Superior Court judge that she has enough money to continue to operate the ship through July when the General Assembly session will be complete.

Amistad America's outstanding debt, owed to 50 groups or individuals, totals $2,017,609. That includes 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.

The unofficial total does not include $404,000 in auditing fees, unpaid payroll taxes and debts incurred by Ocean Classroom Foundation on behalf of Amistad America.

The creditors include Mystic Seaport, which says it is owed more than $45,000 for work and services provided for the schooner; Bank of America, which says it is owed $282,000; and former Capt. Sean Bercaw, who says he is owed $43,884 for 14 months of missing wages.

j.wojtas@theday.com

Twitter: @joewojtas

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