Over the din of a pile driver, a departing ferry and an arriving Amtrak train, Republican Bob Stefanowski said Thursday that Connecticut taxpayers are victims of a “corruption tax” and a hapless Democratic governor, Ned Lamont.
Stefanowski stood in an acoustically challenged spot by the waterfront of New London, a locale with a distant view of a State Pier whose reconstruction is plagued by cost overruns and shadowed by an FBI investigation.
“You’re going to hear a lot about it between now and November, the corruption tax,” Stefanowski said, his voice rising. “Remember that name: Gov. Lamont’s corruption tax.”
In his first press conference since a staff shakeup, Stefanowski spoke both carefully and carelessly, asserting a plague of corruption without directly accusing Lamont or anyone else in his administration of specific wrongdoing.
He compared Lamont unfavorably to John G. Rowland, the Republican governor who resigned facing impeachment in 2004 then went to prison on a federal corruption charge arising from a bid-rigging conspiracy.
“The buck stops with him,” Stefanowski said of Lamont. “There’s been more corruption allegations in this administration — I turned 60 this year — than I’ve ever seen. John Rowland went to prison … for building a hot tub.”
Most people familiar with the roster of wrongdoing during the tenure of Rowland, who accepted more than $100,000 in gifts and services from the beneficiaries of his favors, would question that assertion.
Rowland’s plea deal acknowledged flying free on planes provided by a charter airline company that profited from a tax break inserted in the budget by the governor and conspiring with his chief of staff and a state contractor for other favors.
“Obviously, Mr. Stefanowski doesn’t probably know much about the details of the Rowland case,” said Arthur J. O’Neill, the Republican co-chair of the bipartisan House impeachment committee that drove Rowland from office.
Rowland did accept the gift of a hot tub at the cottage he managed to buy and renovate while facing financial pressures, but it came from an aide — an ethical issue, but not one that played a role in his conviction.
“The thing he went to jail for had nothing to do with the hot tub,” O’Neill said.
No charges have come from the current FBI investigation of the quasi-public Connecticut Port Authority, which runs the State Pier and its reconstruction, or an inquiry into school construction grants.
It has been public knowledge since Feb. 2 that the FBI, beginning in October, has subpoenaed records pertaining to the duties of a fired state budget official, Konstantinos Diamantis, who oversaw school construction grants and, to a lesser degree, the State Pier project.
No one has been charged with a crime, and Diamantis has denied any wrongdoing.
Stefanowski has been trying to establish a consistent narrative unifying his disparate themes about inflation, parental control over education, the governor’s record on taxes and his command over government.
Last week, the Port Authority disclosed that federal authorities served a subpoena in March demanding records and correspondence effectively covering all authority business between 2016 and the present.
The disclosure provided an opportunity for Stefanowski to suspend his focus on inflation and return to a corruption and mismanagement issue he has tried to develop since launching his campaign.
It does not represent a permanent shift in his messaging, he said.
“Our focus is on the economy,” Stefanowski said. “But when he makes massive mistakes, like we see behind here, and I’m the Republican candidate for governor, I have an opportunity to bring it out.”
Originally budgeted at $93 million, the State Pier project is now expected to cost closer to $255 million.
Stefanowski stood with his running mate, Rep. Laura Devlin of Fairfield, and other lawmakers next to a simple visual aid representing the original budget and the $150 million higher cost: A green board labeled “$93M,” and a red one marked “over $242M.”
The green board didn’t reach the candidate’s waist. The red one was about as tall as Stefanowski, who stands well over 6 feet.
“This project is an example of everything that is wrong with this administration,” Devlin said.
Stefanowski said he would have insisted that the Port Authority require Ørsted North America and Eversource, developers of the wind turbine project, assume responsibility for the higher costs.
“And if you don’t, we’re gonna find you two more partners,” Stefanowski said. “That’s the difference between a business leader and a guy who ran a small cable company, who could care less about the taxpayers of Connecticut.”
The suggestion Lamont is over his head is not new.
In an interview with CT Mirror in June, Stefanowski suggested the governor, an entrepreneur who founded a niche cable television company, could not have made the cut at G.E., the corporate behemoth where Stefanowski rose during the perform-or-die reign of Jack Welch, the late CEO whose legacy has dimmed with G.E.’s fortunes.
On Tuesday, as he did during the interview in June, Stefanowski described himself as a hard-nosed executive willing to fire people.
The Port Authority has been dogged by management lapses involving questionable purchases and personnel matters, leading to the resignation of its chairman, Scott Bates, and a demand by the governor for an independent review in August 2019.
“With his campaign in chaos, Bob Stefanowski is again stooping to desperate attacks that have no basis in reality,” said Jake Lewis, a Lamont campaign spokesman. “The facts speak for themselves. Within six months of taking office, Gov. Lamont installed new leadership and created strict controls to further improve accountability and transparency.”
Stefanowski faulted the governor for Bates keeping his job as the deputy secretary of the state.
“Leadership is about holding people accountable. Leadership is about sending a message to the rest of the organization that we will not tolerate fraud,” Stefanowski said. “Leadership is not taking somebody who failed in his first job, cost the state of Connecticut $150 million, and put them in another plush job.”
Bates was named deputy secretary of the state in January 2017, not put there after being removed as a part-time member of the authority’s board. He is an appointee of the secretary of the state, not the governor.
Lamont bypassed Bates when Secretary of the State Denise Merrill resigned in June to care for her ailing husband, going outside the office to name a successor to complete her term.
Stefanowski said Lamont should have pressured Merrill to fire Bates, whose performance as deputy secretary of the state has not been questioned. Stefanowski said he would have done so.
“I’d walk down to that woman, and I’d say, ‘Here’s what I think we should do,’” he said.
Stefanowski said the governor also should have demanded that West Haven Mayor Nancy Rossi resign over disclosures of fiscal mismanagement and allegations of fraud involving federal aid.
“There’s the door,” Stefanowski said. “That’s what I used to do in the corporate world.”