News Column

State's Amistad audit months overdue; spending of loan investigated

July 2, 2014

By Joe Wojtas, The Day, New London, Conn.



July 02--Seven months after it was supposed to be finished, a firm hired by the state continues to work on its audit of how Amistad America spent $8 million in state funding under its former president and CEO Greg Belanger.

Gian-Carl Casa, the undersecretary for legislative affairs at the state Office of Policy and Management, confirmed Tuesday that the auditors are now looking at how the financially troubled organization spent a $280,000 loan it received from TD Bank. The bank placed a lien on the ship for nonpayment in July 2010 but filed a satisfaction of the lien seven months later, according to Coast Guard records.

Casa said that once the TD Bank investigation is completed, the bulk of the auditors' work will have been completed.

"The auditor and their bookkeepers have had to track down many scattered documents covering many years. That's what's taken a long time," Casa said.

State Rep. Diana Urban, D-North Stonington, who has been the lone member of the General Assembly to publicly push for an accounting of how Amistad America has spent its state funding, said Tuesday she continues to be disappointed by the delay.

"I can't comprehend why this is so difficult," she said.

Urban said the state Department of Economic and Community Development, which has dispersed the grant funding to Amistad America, insists that it was not its responsibility to keep track of the funding. The state continues to give Amistad America close to $400,000 a year even though the organization has lost its tax-exempt status for failing to file federal tax returns.

"I'm not sure whose responsibility it is. Apparently no one is accountable. But I'm going to keep pursuing this," she said.

Urban said she is happy with the Office of Policy and Management because it clearly wants to resolve the questions surrounding Amistad America.

Urban also revealed Tuesday that this spring, she tried to include a provision requiring Amistad America to complete a Results-Based Accountability "report card" in the bill that implemented the state budget. The legislature's Appropriations Committee rejected her request.

The report card, which Urban has pushed all state agencies and programs to implement, requires a program to produce data showing it is operating successfully in order to receive state funding. The report card requires the agency or group to show what it does with the money, how well it performed and "is anyone better off because of it?"

Jaclyn Falkowski, spokeswoman for the state Attorney General's office, said Tuesday that her agency "has been in contact with the Office of Policy and Management and the Department of Economic and Community Development regarding Amistad America Inc. and the ongoing audit, and we continue to monitor the situation. At this time, we are comfortable that the appropriate steps are being taken to correct the organization's problems."

Erin Potts, a spokeswoman for TD Bank, said Tuesday she was looking into the status of the $280,000 lien and how it was resolved but could not immediately answer questions about it.

Coast Guard records also show there are three other liens on the schooner, which was built at Mystic Seaport.

They include a $4,252 lien from 2008 from Benjamin Carlson of Old Lyme and a $2,834 lien from 2010 filed by Custom Marine Canvas of Noank. Carlson and Katie Bradford, the owner of Custom Marine Canvas, could not be reached for comment Tuesday.

The third lien was filed in 2013 by a tall ship festival in Bay City, Mich., which says it is owed $7,645. Last month, the coordinator of the nonprofit festival said it paid Amistad America to attend its 2010 festival but the ship canceled and never returned the fee. Its attempts to get Amistad America to pay the debt were unsuccessful, despite Belanger's promises to do so.

Urban has also been working to get Amistad America to repay the money it owes to small businesses.

Last month, Amistad America made a $500 "good faith payment" to BMTees of Norwich, which it owes $7,000 in past due bills and interest dating back to 2006. Several other businesses have contacted The Day and Urban to say they are owed money as well. Urban has suggested that the state pay back the businesses with money from the $400,000 annually that the state continues to give Amistad America.

While heading Amistad America, Belanger signed a deal with Ocean Classroom Foundation of Maine to operate the ship and moved it there. He stepped down from his Amistad America post last summer and became the director of the Ocean Classroom Foundation. Despite its more than $8 million in funding, the state has no ownership interest in the ship. It is currently docked in its former home port of New Haven.

j.wojtas@theday.com

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(c)2014 The Day (New London, Conn.)

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Source: Day, The (New London, CT)


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