Office of Policy and Management Secretary Melissa McCaw talks with reporters in 2019.

Gov. Ned Lamont expressed confidence Thursday in the workplace culture of his administration and in his top budget official, Melissa McCaw, a day after she publicly, if obliquely, referenced the challenges of working as “the first woman of color” in her post.

Responding to claims by a former deputy that she was disrespected by the governor’s top aides, McCaw opened a budget briefing Wednesday with an unusual statement saying her relationship with Lamont was constructive and respectful — while saying nothing about his staff.

“I appreciated her comments about working constructively with me. I also heard her comments that being a Black woman in the administration sometimes poses some challenges,” Lamont said. “And I said, ‘You talk to me. We’re going to work this through. You’re a valued member of our team.’ ”

Asked if McCaw would remain as the secretary of the Office of Policy and Management, he replied, “I hope so.”

McCaw said in an email, “We have a lot of work to do on the budget, and there are no plans [to leave] at this time. If that changes, the Governor will be the first to know.”

Lamont acknowledged he has not spoken to McCaw since she surprised the administration with the statement Wednesday that supported the governor but offered no defense of Lamont’s chief of staff, Paul Mounds, or his former chief operating officer, Josh Geballe.

The governor said he talked with McCaw about the work environment and staff relationships after the CT Mirror posted a story Tuesday about the allegations made by her former deputy, Kosta Diamantis. Lamont made clear he was interested in McCaw’s thoughts, not the claims of Diamantis.

Questions about dissent in the administration arose from an unlikely source and circumstances: Diamantis, a brusque former lawmaker, on the night he was fired by Mounds with the approval of the governor. The firing came without the involvement of McCaw, who was Diamantis’s boss.

Diamantis held both a classified job as the director of school construction grants and a political appointment as McCaw’s deputy at OPM. On Oct. 28, Diamantis was fired from the political post and suspended with pay from the classified school construction job.

At the time, Diamantis was facing questions about the role he played in securing a $99,000-a-year job for his daughter with Chief State’s Attorney Richard Colangelo Jr., who was lobbying the budget agency at the time for help in securing raises for prosecutors. His daughter also had a part-time job with a school construction contractor.

Since then, the FBI has opened an investigation looking at construction programs overseen by Diamantis. And an investigation commissioned by the governor concluded that Diamantis and Colangelo had been untruthful during the inquiry. 

On Wednesday, Colangelo filed retirement papers.

In an interview with the CT Mirror the night he was fired, Diamantis accused Mounds and Geballe of disrespecting McCaw. He repeated and expanded the allegations in a grievance filed in an effort to regain his school construction job.

The Office of Policy and Management has been less influential during the Lamont administration. Lamont created the position of chief operating officer, a post held by Mounds for the first year of the administration, then by Geballe. The position brought into the governor’s office some of the responsibilities that had been at OPM.

In addition, the governor elevated the status of two other commissioners: David Lehman of economic and community development and Deidre Gifford of social services. With Geballe, Gifford and Lehman constituted a small working group overseeing the state’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic.

McCaw felt slighted, say sources familiar with her thinking, and she began to see her race and gender as factors.

The question of staff dissent, with its overtones of sexism, is a sensitive one for a governor who has taken pride in assembling a racially diverse cabinet in which women hold about half the jobs. 

His administration created a Governor’s Council on Women and Girls, led by Lt. Gov. Susan Bysiewicz. The vice chair is McCaw.

“I’m so proud of what Melissa and Susan have put together here with this commission, with this council,” Lamont said after the council’s first meeting in March 2019. “But more importantly, I love the fact that we have an administration — you saw the commissioners out there — about half women, half men, incredibly diverse.”

On Thursday, Lamont said he did not believe his administration had a broader problem.

“I think we’ve got a really good culture,” Lamont said. “I think if you reach out to the commissioners more broadly, listen to what they have to say, I think you’ll find we have a very collaborative group of strong commissioners, an incredibly diverse group of commissioners. And if I can do better, and our team can do better, we’ll always try.”

As for the spectacle of his OPM secretary being at odds with his chief of staff, the governor said he was confident each would do their jobs.

“I think they’re pros. I think that they’ll work together really well, just as they have over the last, you know, three years,” Lamont said. “I think you’re going to find Melissa is absolutely professional when it comes to presenting this budget.”

Mounds, who is Black and came to the administration with deep experience in government and politics, declined comment, other than saying he could not improve or expand on the governor’s remarks.

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Mark PazniokasCapitol Bureau Chief

Mark is the Capitol Bureau Chief and a co-founder of CT Mirror. He is a frequent contributor to WNPR, a former state politics writer for The Hartford Courant and Journal Inquirer, and contributor for The New York Times.