Lisa Wilson-Foley, a wealthy protégée whom ex-Gov. John G. Rowland liked to call “grasshopper” as he tutored her behind-the-scenes on the art of politics, will be following her mentor straight to prison for her role in the botched business scheme they engineered with her husband to help her win a U.S. Congressional seat.
Standing before U.S. District Court Judge Janet Bond Arterton on Tuesday in New Haven’s Church Street federal courthouse, Wilson-Foley was ordered to spend five months behind bars for having allowed her wealthy husband, Brian Foley, to pay the state’s disgraced former governor $35,000 under the table, funneled through his nursing home and private businesses, to advise her 2012 campaign.
“Nothing prepared me for the ugliness of politics,’’ the former candidate told the judge before sentencing, blaming some of her misdeeds on naivete and what she described as a misguided notion that running a campaign would be no different from running a business.
“I fully recognize that I was a candidate, and I was captain of that ship,’’ she continued. “I took full responsibility for having that ship veer far off course. I am deeply remorseful. The past two and a half years have been extremely emotional. I know this case has caused heartache to many. I hope that you, Judge Arterton, see my life in all its totality and sentence me with wisdom and grace.”
Tuesday’s sentencing brings to a close a sorry chapter in Connecticut politics. And because of the rules of fair play, the jury that ultimately presided over Rowland’s trial was not allowed to hear the worst of it: moments like the time when a Wilson-Foley staffer scolded the other staffers and warned them that they’d all “be going to jail” if they stuck around, given the candidate’s determination to avail herself of Rowland’s services without reporting it properly.
Though she had minimal experience in electoral politics, the 55-year-old businesswoman had been a force in the Fifth Congressional District race up until Rowland’s surreptitious advisory role in her campaign began to be suspected by some of her opponents, including a former F.B.I. agent, Michael Clark.
Coincidentally, Clark had helped build the government’s case that had forced Rowland from office in 2004 and sent the disgraced governor the first time to prison the following year for ten months for having abused his office. Last week, Judge Arterton ordered Rowland back to prison, no later than June, for another 30 months, for scheming with the Foleys to evade the regulatory framework that ordinarily picks up and discloses payments made to and from a campaign for the benefit of regulators and voters.
Wilson-Foley and her husband both pleaded guilty almost a year ago in Hartford, while Foley received credit at his sentencing for helping the government obtain a conviction at trial against Rowland. Foley testified before the grand jury and received credit at his sentencing for helping prosecutors obtain a quick conviction last September at trial against Rowland on all seven counts. As a result, Judge Arterton sentenced Foley to only three months in a halfway house despite his admission of having played a major role in the conspiracy.
Wilson-Foley — who was represented by Craig Raabe of the firm Robinson & Cole, and Ryan McGuigan — was never called as a witness by either side, partly because of worries that she could hurt as well as help whoever might ask her to testify.
Prosecutors acknowledged that she produced some evidence that was helpful to the government on the eve of Rowland’s trial – hand-scribbled notes Rowland used as “talking points” the day he pitched his services as a campaign adviser to the couple. But prosecutors and the judge have otherwise been baffled and irked by her ongoing ambivalence about whether she had done anything wrong, despite a guilty plea in which she had acknowledged committing the underlying offense.
Judge Arterton said on Tuesday that Foley “totally unquestionably embraced his guilt,’’ and somehow, “there appears to have been less than that from Ms. Wilson-Foley.”
Christopher Mattei, the lead prosecutor on the case, said “the court should send a message” that “if you try to subvert the process for electoral gain, there’s a price to be paid.”
He also was skeptical about at least one of the defendant’s shows of remorse, her statement that she had no idea that Rowland was going to harass another Republican rival by sharing his cellphone number on air during Rowland’s regular afternoon talk show. “She even said she felt so bad she apologized.”
Mattei told the judge that Inspector Bernard Feeney spoke with that rival (former state legislator Andrew Roraback, who’s now a judge) this morning, and he said he did not recall an apology.
The Foleys have multiple children between them. Her five-month prison term is being delayed until her husband completes the sentence he was given for his role in the scheme – three months in a halfway house. Her sentence will then be followed by a year of supervised release, the first five months of which are to be served under home confinement, presumably at the couple’s home in Simsbury.
The former Congressional candidate was also ordered to pay a fine and reimburse the government roughly $2,400 a month for the costs of her confinement and another $1.89 a day for electronic monitoring, trifles considering that prosecutors recently plugged her net worth — quite apart from that of her husband’s nine-figure fortune, at a cool $23 million.
Wilson-Foley’s lawyers, friends, and a sister pressed the court to spare the first-time offender from prison, citing her many accomplishments and acts of kindness despite the glaring hardships of her childhood.
Judge Arterton said she was unpersuaded that the defendant was a “minor participant” in the illicit scheme. “This whole thing would not have gone down without her,’’ the judge told the standing-room-only crowd in her courtroom.
“The integrity of the political campaign, it has to start at the top,’’ the judge said, “and what is very troubling here is that even after everything started unraveling,’’ Wilson-Foley added to the lies that had already been publicly disseminated about the campaign and Rowland. The judge then proceeded to read aloud from news accounts from 2012 in which Wilson-Foley disingenuously disavowed any knowledge of an end-run around the regulatory rules and falsely accused her opponents of leveling the accusation “without any evidence.”
“That’s trouble,” commented the judge.
Before the two-hour hearing ended, Raabe asked the judge to recommend that Wilson-Foley serve her sentence in a federal prison in West Virginia, where Martha Stewart had served her sentence.
Did he know that Danbury, a federal prison much closer to the defendant’s home in Connecticut, still has the ability to accept female prisoners? the judge wanted to know.
Yes, he did, he said. That was still his client’s preference.
The judge agreed to make the recommendation.