Republican gubernatorial candidate Bob Stefanowski confirmed Wednesday he is a consultant to a company overseen by Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, the Saudi leader blamed by the U.S. for the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi.
Stefanowski, who had refused to identify the consulting clients that contributed to an average annual income of $12 million since 2018 and helped finance his second run for governor, was responding to a story by Hearst Connecticut.
His client is Neom, one of three companies behind an ambitious project to construct a new city in the Saudi desert that would rely on green energy and potentially blaze an economic path for the Saudis away from oil.
Mohammed is the founder of Neom, chairman of its board and the moving force behind the megaproject. Stefanowski declined to say Wednesday if he had met the crown prince.
“This specific investment is going to do more good for the world than probably any other project out there. And that’s what I’m involved in,” Stefanowski said. “So … no bad feelings about being involved in this project whatsoever.”
Stefanowski had a story to tell, one that balanced the liability of any ties to a repressive regime against the upside of consulting on the finances of a green energy project that has won positive notice by the Biden administration.
“John Kerry is Joe Biden’s czar on global climate change. So you’ve got a project that’s been endorsed by Kerry. It’s been endorsed by the president,” Stefanowski said in a Zoom call with reporters.
But rather than disclose the client months ago at a time of his choosing, he left himself vulnerable to the media breaking the story at an inopportune time: just four weeks until Election Day.
Two Republican political activists, neither of whom would be quoted by name criticizing the nominee, faulted Stefanowski for not making a tactical choice about the timing and circumstances for disclosing his client.
When asked in June if he had a client in Saudi Arabia, Stefanowski told CT Mirror that he had clients in several countries but could not identify them due to non-disclosure agreements.
He said Wednesday he was speaking about Neom with the permission of the client — consent he could have requested at the outset of his campaign, but did not.
“I was a private citizen. I agreed to do this. I agreed to see it out. I don’t want to impact my clients for any potential political upside or downside that I might have,” Stefanowski said. “I’m a little bit happy to get it out there. Because, you know, there’s been rumors flying around forever.”
On Wednesday, Stefanowski said his only “non-domestic” client was Neom, whose chief executive officer first broached working for them in late 2018, when Gov. Ned Lamont defeated him by 3.2 percentage points.
He took the client knowing he was interested in a potential second run for governor, but he said Wednesday the Saudi record on human rights did not give him pause, due to his limited role as an adviser.
“If I was going to have any — any — involvement in decision making, or part of that, it would have,” Stefanowski said. “But I look at this, and this is what global executives do, you go to different countries, you find specific investments.”
Stefanowski, whose consulting business focuses on mergers and acquisitions, said his role was advising Neom on the financial structure of its complicated joint undertaking with another Saudi company, ACWA, and Air Products, a chemical and industrial gas company in Pennsylvania.
In July, the crown prince announced the Saudis were setting aside $80 billion for the Neom megaproject and were seeking outside investors. One of the global investors at the announcement was Ray Dalio, the founder of Bridgewater Associates in Connecticut.
Stefanowski suggested that Lamont could not criticize his involvement without faulting Dalio, whom the governor knows and has praised for his philanthropy. Lamont’s first chief of staff was an executive from Bridgewater, Ryan Drajewicz.
“So I’d be interested if the governor does ultimately have criticisms of me for political purposes,” Stefanowski said. “I think Gov. Lamont needs to be very, very careful here about not being hypocritical.”
Lamont left a campaign press conference highlighting Hispanic endorsements without taking questions about the Hearst story on the race for governor.
“I just read the articles. I’ve just seen the headlines,” Lamont said. “It poses an awful lot of questions, but I don’t want to jump to any conclusions. Let me read it and think about it. I’ll get back to you tomorrow.”
Bridgewater had no comment Wednesday.
The Wall Street Journal reported Tuesday that Neom was paying senior executives roughly $1.1 million each annually and using large pay packages to lure global talent.
Stefanowski declined to divulge his compensation.
Tax returns he released recently show his income rose sharply after 2018, averaging more than $12 million annually. He had been a consultant since 2017, working for Lolo LLC., an entity named for his oldest daughter’s childhood nickname.
Stefanowski spent $3.3 million of his own funds on his 2018 race. He has tripled that number this year, depositing $10 million in his campaign account and raising another $1.45 million. He already has spent $9.2 million.
The Republican challenger has made fiscal transparency an issue in the race, criticizing the Lamont administration for contracting for COVID-19 testing with Sema4, a company in which the governor’s wife’s firm had invested.
Connecticut hired all four companies that responded to a request for proposals and had been accredited by federal authorities to conduct the testing. The Lamonts had disclosed the investment by Annie Lamont’s firm in an ethics filing, as well as its holdings in other companies.
Stefanowski, who trails the governor by double digits in recent polls, downplayed the disclosure of his continuing work for the Saudis.
“I don’t really think a lot of this does matter to the residents of Connecticut, but we’ll see where the governor takes it,” he said.
Stefanowski said his most recent trip to Saudi Arabia was earlier this year. It lasted two days, he said.
He described himself as 98% disconnected from the project.
“I think it’s a good project,” Stefanowski said. “I think it helps me understand global warming.”