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Amistad's state money spigot is still wide open

By David Collins

Publication: The Day

Published January 26. 2014 4:00AM

Back in November, I wrote that a state-ordered audit of the Amistad and all the unaccounted-for state money that has gone to support the Mystic-built schooner was late.

The audit would determine what to do about the unexplained finances of the nonprofit, which went three years without filing a tax return.

The audit was due by the start of November. As of last week, it still wasn't finished, according to the state Office of Policy and Management, which hired the outside auditing firm Cohn Reznik, back in the summer, for $78,000.

"The auditors' original target date was their estimate, which they made before they had started looking through the records," a spokesman for OPM wrote in an email, to explain the audit delay.

"Once they started doing that it became clear the audits would take longer, as they've had to track down the paperwork. Plus, they are doing five years' worth of audits, which is time-consuming under the best of circumstances. We are anxious to see them, too."

Amistad America, the nonprofit that owns the ship, seems largely defunct, with no functioning board of directors. It lost its nonprofit status from the Internal Revenue Service because it had stopped filing tax returns.

The boat has been leased to a Maine sail training association, where it seems to be homeported. It is now in the Caribbean for the winter.

Until now, I naturally assumed that the state, which has given the Amistad millions of dollars over the years, much of it unaccounted for, had stopped handing out money to the ship. After all, it barely made a stop in Connecticut last year. It didn't even come to New London's schooner festival.

Why would the state put another dime down such a dark hole?

But, I learned last week, after asking, that Connecticut money is still flowing, steady installments on the $379,000 in annual funding lawmakers put again in this year's budget.

The Department of Economic and Community Development complained back in September, in a report from DECD Commissioner Catherine Smith, that under state law it can't interfere with line-item budgets approved the legislature. Smith essentially told the legislature and the governor in September that it was up to them to stop the money.

"We have few remedies for lack of performance, or even concerns about operations issues," the DECD report said then.

And so, good to its word, DECD has continued to push money at Amistad.

The state paid out, electronically, a third-quarter payment of $66,346.53 in early January, according to a DECD spokesman. It is interesting that the money was wired. They couldn't send a check to Amistad's Connecticut office, since there is none.

Another payment from the state, $47,562, is due to be paid April 1.

Shame on everyone.

Lawmakers and the governor were warned in September that more good money was going to be spent after bad. But they did nothing.

Smith can say she warned people, but couldn't someone at DECD have picked up the phone before pushing the button on transmitting another $66,000 to an organization that hasn't filed a tax return in years?

One can only wonder how much deeper the waste and incompetence goes in the state bureaucracy.

And exactly what magical dust has been sprinkled by the folks who spirited a big schooner right out of Connecticut, but kept the allowance money flowing.

This is the opinion of David Collins.

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