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Connecticut News

With praise and pointed silence, McCaw confirms tension in Lamont administration

Connecticut State Budget Director Melissa McCaw
Ebong Udoma
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WSHU
Melissa McCaw

At a budget briefing Wednesday, Office of Policy and Management Secretary Melissa McCaw read a statement affirming a “close working relationship” with Gov. Ned Lamont and implicitly confirming a distant relationship with others.

The timing and contents of the statement were notable, coming the day after the CT Mirror reported that a sealed grievance filed by her fired former deputy says McCaw was treated disrespectfully by Lamont’s two top aides, Paul Mounds and Josh Geballe.

She offered no defense of Mounds, the chief of staff, or Geballe, the chief operating officer, against criticism made in the grievance by her former undersecretary Konstantinos Diamantis.

McCaw’s relationship with Mounds and others in the governor’s inner circle has been fraught since Mounds removed Diamantis as undersecretary, clearly without her consent. Diamantis left with a blistering assessment of Mounds, Geballe and the governor’s general counsel, Nora R. Dannehy.

“I want to say that as a Black woman and the first woman of color to hold the position of OPM secretary, it is not easy to work professionally at this high level in a field that has been dominated by white males,” McCaw said.

Mounds is Black, but McCaw’s predecessors at OPM have been white and, for the most part, male. By tradition and statutory authority, the position of OPM secretary has been the most powerful in state government, overseeing labor negotiations and policy initiatives in addition to the budget.

Lamont has shifted some of those responsibilities to his office by creating the position of chief operating officer, which first was held by Mounds. Once Mounds became chief of staff in February 2020, Geballe became the chief operating officer, while continuing to serve as the commissioner of administrative services.

A consequence was that McCaw was not seen in the same light as previous OPM secretaries, who tended to be among the closest gubernatorial aides, such as the relationship Gov. Dannel P. Malloy had with his secretary, Ben Barnes.

McCaw’s statement Wednesday hinted at the discord between her and others in the administration.

“And while I cannot say the same for everyone in this administration, I want you to know that Governor Lamont and I have always had a strong and close working relationship based on mutual trust and mutual respect,” McCaw said.

In what sounded like a farewell, she added, “I’m very grateful to the governor for the opportunity to lead the Office of Policy and Management and to have a real impact on our state.”

Diamantis was fired from his OPM position at the end of October after administration officials learned that his daughter, Anastasia, had gotten a job with Chief State’s Attorney Richard Colangelo’s office while Colangelo was pressing Diamantis to help secure raises for his staff. (Colangelo announced his retirement Wednesday shortly before the state’s Criminal Justice Commission was poised to open a formal case against him to decide whether he was guilty of “misconduct,” “incompetence” or “material neglect” of his duties.)

In his grievance, which is currently before the Employee Review Board, Diamantis said he was targeted by the administration after he complained that Geballe and Mounds had been disrespectful to McCaw and had allowed other commissioners to mistreat her as well.

Diamantis also is the subject of a federal grand jury investigation of the state-financed reconstruction of the State Pier in New London along with school construction grants overseen by Diamantis in his dual role as director of the Office of School Construction Grants and Review, a classified job with civil service protections.

McCaw’s prepared statement did not mention either Mounds, Geballe or Diamantis by name. It also didn’t refute the allegations made in the grievance.

“I’m proud of the work we’ve done together. And what we’ve accomplished for the citizens of Connecticut. Our state is in the strongest fiscal position. It’s been in at least the past 20 years,” McCaw said. “And while I know there’s certainly a lot of media interest in recent reports, I will have no further comment on those topics.”

When asked after her budget presentation whether she felt disrespected by any of the governor’s staff or commissioners she declined to answer.

Lamont made two references to the Diamantis controversy in his State of the State address to the legislature, which preceded McCaw’s briefing to the press.

“I have zero tolerance for any ethical malfeasance,” Lamont said. “We hold ourselves to the highest standards. If you see something, say something, and if you don’t get the response you deserve, give me a call.”

He also gave fulsome praise of Geballe, who is leaving the administration to oversee a new innovation and entrepreneurial program at Yale. He said Geballe led the state’s COVID efforts “from dawn to dusk.”

Legislators from both sides of the aisle stood to applaud Geballe.

Racial and gender injustice

The grievance was filed under seal at Diamantis’ request on January 19. It already had been through two other secret hearings in which his claims were denied. The employee review board is his last step under the state contract.

“[Diamantis] paid for speaking out against racial and gender injustice and cronyism by becoming the subject of Chief Operating Officer and Department of Administrative Services Commissioner Joshua Geballe’s and Chief of Staff Paul Mounds’ ire,” attorney Zachary Reilands wrote in the 24-page grievance,

Reilands was referring to allegations by Diamantis that OPM Secretary McCaw, who is Black, was treated disrespectfully by Geballe and Mounds.

The governor’s office issued a long statement to the CT Mirror denying Diamantis’ allegations.

“As a result of a preliminary review into the hiring of Mr. Diamantis’ daughter by the Division of Criminal Justice, the Office of the Governor determined that Mr. Diamantis should be removed from his appointed position as OPM Deputy Secretary and placed on paid administrative leave from his classified position of Construction Services Director of Project Management for the Office of School Construction Grants and Review pending the results of further investigation.

“Rather than meet with representatives of the Governor’s Office to discuss the matter, Mr. Diamantis chose to resign and retire from state service. In light of the preliminary review by the Governor Office and the resignation by Mr. Diamantis, the Governor directed OPM and DAS to end the MOU in place and move the authority of the Office of School Construction Grants and Review back to the DAS. Mr. Diamantis subsequently asked to rescind his resignation and DAS denied the request. In response to that decision, he filed a grievance. DAS and OPM denied the grievance and the matter is now before the Employee’s Review Board.

“The State denies all allegations in the grievance and will vigorously defend its actions. Because the matter is pending, and the filings remain confidential, we will have no further comment at this time.”

Not in good standing

Diamantis was removed from the politically appointed OPM position last October. He was suspended with pay from his civil-service job overseeing school construction grants. Rather than accept the suspension, Diamantis retired.

But within hours of doing so, he tried to rescind his retirement. Geballe denied his request, according to the grievance, saying that Diamantis hadn’t resigned in “good standing.”

The grievance also states that Geballe refused to rescind the retirement because of Diamantis’ “unprofessional conduct,” specifically citing two “inappropriate text messages” Diamantis sent on the evening of Oct. 28.

The first, to Mounds, read, “I’m coming / The truth is coming / Liars will come forward / Racists too.”

Minutes later, he sent a text to Geballe that read: “I hate liars and racists.”

In his grievance, Diamantis alleges that Geballe and Mounds held a grudge against him for speaking out about the way they and other commissioners treated McCaw.

“Geballe was openly disrespectful to her as a result and subjected the first black and female Secretary of OPM to humiliation,” the grievance states.

Geballe’s treatment of McCaw led to “disrespect of the Secretary by other agency heads as the COO was leading by example. The OPM staff was very much aware that the COO’s efforts, unobstructed by the COS Mounds, was to emasculate OPM as the policy and management arm of the administration.”

Diamantis describes secretly listening, at McCaw’s request, to Zoom meetings with other commissioners and state officials so he could “witness the treatment she was receiving.

“The Complainant’s attendance in these meetings was not known to Geballe, and the Complainant personally witnessed Geballe’s openly hostile, condescending, and abusive treatment of the Secretary,” the grievance states.

The grievance describes another Zoom meeting among state commissioners where McCaw addressed an unnamed commissioner’s “abusive and disrespectful behavior toward the Secretary” and charged it “was rooted in racial discrimination/animus.”

“The secretary respectfully expressed her discomfort with the treatment and requested that greater attention be given toward tone and professionalism in order to avoid making fellow employees uncomfortable,” the grievance states.

Mark Pazniokas contributed to this story.