Office of Policy and Management Secretary Melissa McCaw and Gov. Ned Lamont face reporters in June of 2019 (CTNewsJunkie File)
TERRY COWGILL
TERRY COWGILL

As scandals swirl around him and threaten his legacy, Gov. Ned Lamont seems overwhelmed by the controversies and the emerging battles only a few weeks after announcing he’ll seek a second term. It’s not an exaggeration to say that the implications of the corruption threaten to bury him as he campaigns for re-election.

The recent departure of Melissa McCaw, a Lamont appointee who headed the Office of Policy and Management, was dramatic yet predictable, coming as it did on the heels of the news that her since-resigned chief deputy, former state Rep. Konstantinos Diamantis, was the target of an FBI investigation over the possible steering of school construction contracts and the state-financed reconstruction of the State Pier in New London.

But it gets even worse. The Lamont administration also disclosed that it had hired former U.S. Attorney Stanley Twardy to investigate the hiring of Diamantis’ daughter, Anastasia, for a $99,000-per-year job in the office of Chief State’s Attorney Richard Colangelo, who was lobbying Diamantis and McCaw for raises for himself and more than a dozen of his prosecutors.

Amid calls for his firing, Colangelo wisely announced his retirement. Fortunately for Lamont, no criminal charges have been filed — at least not yet — but a federal grand jury has issued a subpoena for communications involving Diamantis and relevant school construction projects.

The argument that McCaw was blindsided by Diamantis’ misdeeds is hard to swallow. The best you can say for McCaw is she had poor judgment and provided equally poor supervision. As blogger and Hartford Courant columnist Kevin Rennie has reported, McCaw had personally recruited Diamantis and in a 2019 email, lavished praise on him in announcing his hiring to OPM staff. McCaw specifically touted his experience and knowledge of the state’s school construction program, which Diamantis had previously run at the Department of Administrative Services before McCaw transferred the program to OPM.

As my colleague Lisa Backus reported, Twardy’s findings reveal that Diamantis continued to push for the raises for Colangelo and his staff even after Rennie’s Courant column sparked an internal review. The shamelessness and sense of entitlement on the part of Diamantis are breathtaking.

Of McCaw’s resignation and her career move to become finance director of East Hartford, Lamont said, “I think she was looking for a fresh start, and I understand what she’s doing.”

Lamont has gone into full-on damage control. He said his administration was taking action to restore public confidence in the school construction program. Amid continuing questions about the role of Diamantis, whom he knew on a first-name basis as “Kosta,” Lamont referred to the former member of his administration as “some deputy at OPM.” Right. Amid the unfolding scandal earlier this month, Lamont led a previously planned trade mission to Israel. The optics were not good.

The scandals have had the effect of breathing new life into the state’s Republican Party, which had been facing an uphill battle in trying to unseat Lamont and other Democratic elected officials, including three of the state’s five constitutional officers (two are not seeking re-election), and members of the Democrat-dominated General Assembly who must face the people in the Nov. 8. elections.

Led by House Minority Leader Vincent Candelora and Senate Minority Leader Kevin Kelly, Republicans have been calling for hearings on the scandal, but Candelora complained that so far, Democrats have responded with “crickets.” Lamont spokesman Max Reiss has indicated that Lamont is open to a legislative probe.

Legislative investigations do often turn into political circuses, but sometimes they uncover wrongdoing and details that have eluded others. Legislative investigators, for example, played a key role in uncovering additional evidence of gifts accepted by then-Gov. John Rowland that ultimately led to his resignation. Most famously, it was congressional hearings that prompted the undoing of disgraced President Richard Nixon during the Watergate scandal.

While trying mightily to contain his glee, the campaign of the leading Republican candidate for governor, Bob Stefanowski, has been given new life. Or, as Paul Bass of the New Haven Independent observed, “The campaign gods have bestowed a gift upon Bob Stefanowski.”

Stefanowski has been making the media rounds and has been active on Twitter calling for legislative investigations and ridiculing Lamont for suggesting “that the growing scandal surrounding his Administration is merely a ‘distraction’.”

For obvious reasons, most Democrats in the General Assembly want to avoid this kind of probe, especially in a gubernatorial election year. But the taxpayers of Connecticut who pay for school and state pier construction projects and the salaries of people like Diamantis’ daughter, deserve better. If Democrats resist a legislative inquiry, it will look to some like they’re trying to protect the Lamont administration from further damage, and that perception could hurt them with voters more than the investigation itself.

Terry Cowgill

Terry Cowgill

Contributing op-ed columnist Terry Cowgill lives in Lakeville, blogs at PolitiConn and is the retired managing editor of The Berkshire Edge in Great Barrington, Mass. Follow him on Twitter @terrycowgill or email him at tcowgill90@wesleyan.edu.

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