Gov. Ned Lamont answered questions Monday about a business deal between a Saudi-backed investment firm and his wife’s venture capital company, saying he had no involvement in the agreement and it will have no impact on his decisions as governor.
But the deal between Sanabil Investments and Oak Hill HC/FT, of which First Lady Annie Lamont is a co-founder and managing partner, has reignited calls among lawmakers and on social media for more transparency around the business dealings of a governor’s family.
Lamont said he learned about the deal through media reports last week, adding he and his wife did not discuss the deal.
“Look, they invest in hundreds of funds around the country and Annie has close to 100 different investors,” Lamont said after a press conference in Shelton. “I guess they’re one of them.”
The disclosure also comes less than a year after Lamont questioned his Republican challenger, Bob Stefanowski, for doing business with the Saudis.
Disclosing Potential Conflicts
Sanabil is the private investment fund of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia that commits approximately $3 billion in capital per year to investments.
Sanabil lists its investment in Oak HC/FT, among many others, on its list of partnerships, something Lamont said shows the deal is not a secret.
In the wake of the 2018 murder of Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi in a Saudi consulate, venture capital firms have been reticent to disclose whether they have accepted funds from Saudi Arabia.
Some politicians have warned that the Saudi royal family is using the fund and its investments in sports, entertainment and other ventures to curry a more positive public image. Lamont said the deal between Oak HC/FT and Sanabil won’t impact his policy decisions or comments he makes about the country.
“You know us better than that,” Lamont said.
Minority Leader Vincent Candelora, R-North Branford, didn’t raise specific objections to the deal, but said he wants more transparency in general.
“I’m just troubled by the fact that there isn’t more disclosure between a spouse’s activity when their spouse is a public official,” Candelora said.
Early into his first term, Lamont detailed a plan to try and prevent conflicts of interest between his wife’s business and his role as governor.
That plan includes listing companies of which Oak HC/FT has at least partial ownership. Lamont has pledged to recuse himself from making decisions, including offering contracts and setting policies, that benefit those companies.
The Lamonts also agreed to hand over control of most of their investments to an independent grantor, which the Office of State Ethics compared to a blind trust.
The Citizen’s Ethics Advisory Board signed off on an advisory opinion in 2019 that accepted the plan.
Candelora said that should also include when Oak HC/FT enters deals with investors.
“I think there needs to be a clear iron curtain drawn between the governor’s activities and the first lady’s activities,” he said. The two already filed their taxes separately.
Senate President Martin M. Looney, D-New Haven, said he didn’t have a concern about the Sanabil-Oak HC/FT deal.
“I don’t have any particular issues or questions. Obviously the Lamonts’ financial situation is a little more complex than most governors,” he said.
He would be open, though, to requiring more disclosure, saying he’d leave it to the Government Administration and Elections Committee to look at proposals next year.
“We’re always looking to promote transparency and accountability,” he said.
Candelora said he has a broader concern about the potential for Annie Lamont’s business deals to create conflicts for Connecticut.
He specifically mentioned SEMA4, a company that received an investment from Oak HC/FT and also received a no-bid contract to provide COVID testing Connecticut.
He didn’t support jumping to additional policies, but said transparency would allow lawmakers to see if such steps are needed. He also said the Ethics ruling sets a bad precedent.
“This can repeat itself,” he said. “This isn’t about Gov. Lamont, this is a lot bigger.”
Lamont was critical of Stefanowski after Stefanowski confirmed ahead of last year’s gubernatorial election that he was paid by Saudi Arabia to consult the country on a green-energy project starting in 2019.
“I can see why somebody running for office would want to hide that from the public,” Lamont said back in October of 2022. “Signing a deal with the Saudis right after the assassination of Khashoggi raises questions about judgment.”
Asked Monday why Connecticut residents should view Sanabil’s deal with Oak HC/FT differently, Lamont defended the partnership.
“It’s one of 100 different investors, it was publicly noticed right on their website,” he said. “I think it’s — they can invest their money in China, they can invest their money in Russia or they can invest their money in the United States. She’s going to make sure it’s properly invested here.”
Stefanowski didn’t criticize Lamont Monday, but questioned why the Oak HC/FT-Sanabil deal hasn’t received as much attention as his own business deal with the Saudis.
“I don’t know anything about the Lamont family investment, so it’s hard for me to comment,” he said in a statement. “But I give George Colli and CTNewsJunkie credit for at least asking the question. Where is Hearst, CT Mirror, CT Capitol Report and the rest of local TV on this issue? They certainly asked me plenty of questions when I was a candidate.”