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Group that controls tall ship Amistad placed into receivership

Connecticut Attorney General George Jepsen won a court order Thursday placing the Freedom Schooner Amistad, Connecticut’s tall ship, under a private receiver who will be tasked with helping the ailing nonprofit Amistad America Inc. untangle its finances and make sure state grants that help support the historic 129-foot topsail schooner are well spent.

The receiver, New Haven lawyer Katharine B. Sacks, will take on the role of Amistad America Inc.’s chief executive, with authority to sign contracts, spend money and take on debt, the Hartford Courant reported. The court order prohibits the Amistad’s creditors from collecting on debts without obtaining court approval.

Sacks’ appointment follows the release of an audit earlier in August for the four years that ended in March 2012 that shows net assets dropping from more than $1 million in March 2008 to negative assets three years later.

"Today's action puts in place a professional and experienced receiver who will ensure that, over the coming months, the organization's finances are handled correctly and that existing obligations are addressed," Jepsen told the Courant. "We will seek to continue the receivership until the public can be assured that its money is being properly used and accounted for and that a plan exists for the organization to responsibly carry out its mission into the future."

The New Haven-based Amistad tours ports, telling the story and teaching the lessons of the 49 Amistad slaves who wrested control of the original ship from its captain in 1839 while sailing to a plantation in Cuba. They were subsequently captured and imprisoned in New Haven, where they won their freedom — and a return voyage to Africa — in a landmark case that went all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court.

The New London (Conn.) Day reported in May 2013 that Amistad America had lost its IRS nonprofit status after failing to file tax returns for three consecutive years, although it later came to light that the organization had filed for extensions to file that paperwork. The group also was reported to be ailing financially after the loss of federal money — its principal source of funding — and the failure of the ship’s bowsprit during a trip back from Cuba in 2010.

After those setbacks, the ship laid up for two years at Mystic Seaport, where it underwent repairs and restoration. Amistad America had continued to receive $379,000 annually from the state of Connecticut. During the past 20 years, Connecticut has invested almost $9 million in the Amistad, according to a report to the Connecticut governor’s chief of staff. That has included more than $2 million for dredging and dock facilities in New Haven, $2.5 million for construction of the Baltimore Clipper-type ship at Mystic Seaport, $725,000 for repairs and $3.5 million in operating subsidies.

"There remain substantial challenges ahead for the Amistad — not least of which are designing an appropriate governing structure for the organization and identifying consistent and adequate sources for its operational funding," Jepsen said. "Success is not guaranteed, but today's action is a necessary first step and one that can give the state the confidence needed to continue expending funds allocated for the ship's operations."

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