New Haven – Two top campaign aides to congressional candidate Lisa Wilson-Foley testified Wednesday that each were alarmed by her apparent willingness to hire former Gov. John G. Rowland off the campaign books. One described writing a panicked email while driving, asking another aide to immediately call the candidate.
Rowland quickly became a dominant voice in Wilson-Foley’s 2012 congressional campaign after signing on as a paid consultant to her husband’s nursing home chain in late 2011, said one of the campaign’s former managers, Chris Covucci.
Covucci, who stayed with the campaign for just six weeks, testified in U.S. District Court that Wilson-Foley told him on his first day that Rowland would play a major campaign role, but would be paid by Foley’s nursing home chain, Apple Rehab, to keep his name off public campaign finance records.
A second campaign aide, Chris Syrek, also testified, describing warning Wilson-Foley against hiring Rowland, saying any payments to the controversial former governor would appear on campaign finance reports.
“She said, ‘Well, maybe the campaign didn’t have to pay him,’ ” Syrek said.
Syrek was so alarmed by the suggestion that Wilson-Foley would consider paying Rowland off the books that he emailed Tiffany Romero Grossman, then the campaign manager, while driving with the candidate next to him: “Call lisa about Rowland, etc. Just trust me…bring it up somehow. I’m in the car w her.“
Grossman testified last week that Syrek’s email prompted her to warn Wilson-Foley against hiring Rowland. She resigned a short time later because of a difficult pregnancy and was succeed by Covucci.
Covucci said he was “stunned” by the arrangement Wilson-Foley spelled out to him — that Rowland would be paid by Apple for campaign work — and immediately began seeking other employment, but he never urged Wilson-Foley to stop using Rowland, contending that his candidate was unlikely to heed such advice.
The testimony came on the sixth day of the government’s case against Rowland, who is accused of conspiring with Wilson-Foley and her husband, Brian Foley, to skirt federal campaign finance laws. Wilson-Foley wanted Rowland’s advice, but were wary of hiring a politician who had resigned as governor and gone to prison on a federal corruption charge, Foley has testified.
Rowland advised the campaign on overall strategy, hiring and communications, suggesting public statements and vetting press releases that he later commented on during his other job as an afternoon host on the state’s dominant AM radio station, WTIC-1080, Covucci said.
Under cross-examination, William L. Drake, one of Rowland’s lawyers, repeatedly suggested to Covucci that he misunderstood Wilson-Foley and conflated two things she told him: Rowland had been hired by Apple Rehab, and he would take a major role in the campaign.
Isn’t it true you misunderstood, that the two things were coincidental and not connected? Drake asked.
“No, it was clear what she was telling me,” Covucci said.
Not even a possibility of a misunderstanding?
“No, it was clear.”
“Three years later, you are absolutely sure?”
Drake asked if Wilson-Foley really confessed to being part of a cover up in one of their very first conversations.
Covucci replied that she did.
“And you were stunned by this bombshell?”
Covucci, who was 29 when hired, said he deferred to Rowland and Chris Healy, the former Republican state chairman, who was a consultant to the campaign. He said both offered good advice.
“The campaign was very much disjointed,” Covucci said. “There was no direction. I thought that Healy and Rowland had offered some good advice and some good pointers on getting Lisa back on track.”
He recalled joking in an email to a campaign colleague, Chris Syrek, that he had drunk the “Rowland Kool-Aid.”
Covucci said he never meshed with Wilson-Foley, a topic covered at a lunch with Rowland and Healy.
“I picked their brains on working with Lisa. She can be difficult,” he said.
Apple’s paying Rowland was not the only ethical concern Covucci had, he said.
Covucci said that Wilson-Foley’s daughter solicited Apple employees for campaign donations, despite his telling Wilson-Foley that the solicitation could be seen as coercive.
“You can’t ask an employee to volunteer,” he said, without it being seen as an order.
Was that your opinion? Drake asked.
“I think that’s how life works,” Covucci replied.
Covucci, who lived in West Hartford, an easy commute to the campaign’s headquarters in Avon, was paid $5,000 a month by Wilson-Foley. He resigned before Thanksgiving to take a job across the state in Norwich with the short-lived congressional campaign of Chris Coutu. The job came with a 20-percent pay cut.