HARTFORD, Conn. — Connecticut's top economic development official is asking the governor and the legislature for more authority to oversee the finances and operations of the state's official flagship, the Amistad schooner, whose owner is facing questions about its spending of millions of dollars in taxpayer money.
Catherine Smith, commissioner of the Department of Economic and Community Development, said in a three-page report released Tuesday that current law doesn't allow the agency to impose requirements on line-item budget recipients like Amistad America Inc., owner of the 129-foot Baltimore clipper, other than mandating clean audits.
Dannel P. Malloy's chief of staff, Mark Ojakian, had asked Smith to report back to him by Tuesday on what's being done to improve the financial accountability of the Amistad and its owner. The request came amid criticism by state Rep. Diana Urban, D-North Stonington, about Amistad America's loss of its nonprofit status, lack of financial transparency and what she called questionable business partnerships.
Smith said her agency needs more authority to impose performance conditions and more reporting requirements on budget recipients.
Urban, meanwhile, called for the dissolution of Amistad America's board of directors and the installation of new directors with more expertise in ship operations and fundraising. The state, however, has no such authority to impose board changes on private organizations.
"I'm basically saying enough is enough," Urban said Wednesday. "I was elected to represent the taxpayers. Somebody's got to say, 'Stop sending the money until the ship ... is back on course.'"
Urban criticized the DECD for lax oversight of Amistad America and said she doesn't believe the agency needs more authority. She said Amistad America has been submitting yearly financial reports to the state and the DECD should have seen that the organization was having problems and informed the legislature.
Urban first became concerned about the Amistad earlier this year after learning the organization lost its federal nonprofit status for failing to file required forms with the IRS.
DECD officials recently said there was no evidence of impropriety by Amistad America and credited the New Haven-based organization for turning itself around after several years of financial problems, including the loss of $2.2 million a year in federal funding. The state, however, has contracted with an independent auditor to review Amistad America's finances dating back to 2009, a review expected to be completed by November.
A symbol of the fight against slavery, the Amistad is a replica of a ship that was taken over by African captives being brought to Cuba in 1839. They landed on Long Island but were captured and jailed in New Haven. With help from abolitionists, they won their freedom in a landmark case that started in Connecticut and ended in the U.S. Supreme Court.
The state has invested nearly $9 million in the schooner, including $2.5 million for construction in 1999 and 2000 and $2 million for dredging and a dock in New Haven. Amistad America also gets $379,000 a year from the state for operations.
Hanifa Washington, Amistad America's executive director, said the organization already is in the process of revamping its board. She welcomed Smith's proposals for more state oversight, and said the organization is working to get back its nonprofit status.
"It's been rough seas not only for this small nonprofit organization, but the economy in general," Washington said. "This organization is going through a rebirth."
Urban, however, said there's no proof that Amistad America is turning itself around.
She has been questioning the organization's educational partnership with Love146, a New Haven nonprofit group working to prevent child sex trafficking and exploitation. The two groups will share their messages aboard the Amistad during its travels. She worries the Amistad's message will be diluted by the subject of child sex trafficking.
Urban said she also is frustrated the state's official flagship is now in Puerto Rico during hurricane season being used in the filming of a TV series about pirates, instead of appearing at the Connecticut Schooner Festival in Mystic this week. Amistad America is expected to get more than $200,000 in the TV deal.