Lisa Wilson-Foley and her husband, Brian Foley, pleaded guilty Monday to a federal conspiracy charge stemming from what they described as an effort to conceal $35,000 in payments to former Gov. John G. Rowland for help with Wilson-Foley’s unsuccessful congressional campaign in 2012.
Rowland, 56, who reinvented himself as a popular radio host on WTIC-AM in 2010 after serving 10 months in prison on a federal corruption charge, was identified in court as a co-conspirator of the couple, meaning he is the target of a federal corruption investigation for the second time in a decade.
The former governor was spared being on the air as the story broke: His afternoon drive-time program was pre-empted on WTIC AM by the season opener of the Boston Red Sox.
Rowland, a three-term Republican governor, and his local lawyer, Bartley Halloran, did not respond to requests for comment. Rowland also is represented by Reid H. Weingarten, a top criminal defense lawyer based in Washington, D.C.
Wilson-Foley, 54, of Simsbury, admitted Monday that she and her 62-year-old husband kept Rowland off the books in her 5th Congressional District campaign, fearing that placing a felon on staff would generate negative publicity. Instead, her husband paid Rowland as a consultant to his nursing-home business, Apple Rehab.
A plea document released Monday says that Rowland initiated the conspiracy with an email to Foley and Wilson-Foley on Sept. 5, 2011: “I have an idea to run by you, what days are good?”
When they met a week later, Rowland pitched himself as an advisor to the Wilson-Foley campaign. In a second meeting, Rowland tried to cement the deal with a lie: He made up a competing offer from another candidate, but insisted he preferred working with them.
He signed a contract Oct. 1, 2011 to be paid $5,000 a month. To avoid detection, the contract was with a lawyer for Apple Rehab.
In a later email, Rowland acknowledged the importance of avoiding press attention, especially while one of Wilson-Foley’s rivals for the GOP nomination was Mike Clark, the retired FBI agent who helped pursue Rowland eight years earlier.
“I am just a volunteer helping you and ‘many other Republican candidates’ in case anyone asks,” Rowland advised Nov. 30, 2011. “I want to stay under the radar as much as possible and get the job done.. after Clarke [sic] gets out of the race it can be different, want to avoid a bad article, will try to make Sat nite.”
The series of emails quoted by the U.S. Attorney’s office shows that Wilson-Foley, Rowland, the Apple Rehab lawyer and others communicated about hiding the nature of Rowland’s relationship to her campaign.
One email with Christian B. Shelton of Branford, an Apple Rehab lawyer, discusses how to best draft the contract to conceal the relationship. Shelton was not named in the plea document, but he was identified in 2012 when the campaign was forced to acknowledge that Rowland was being paid by Apple Rehab. At the time, Wilson-Foley said Rowland was advising her husband.
The emails also showed how discussions about the benefits and potential risks of her husband’s health-care company producing a commercial meant to promote her candidacy.
Foley’s $35,000 in payments to Rowland constituted an illegal contribution to Wilson-Foley’s campaign, far in excess of the $7,500 contribution limit, the couple admitted.
Despite Rowland’s forced resignation in 2004 and his subsequent corruption plea later that year, Wilson-Foley saw Rowland as an asset to her campaign for the GOP nomination. She was seeking a seat Rowland had won in 1984 and held for three terms, and Rowland was seen as someone who could help devise a strategy to win over potential convention delegates.
The plea agreement signed by Wilson-Foley says that Rowland proposed a campaign consulting arrangement. Rowland was not named in the plea agreement, but Wilson-Foley and Foley named him as the person identified in the documents as “co-conspirator 1.”
“I knowingly and intentionally conspired with co-conspirator 1, who was John Rowland,” Foley said in court, according to The Hartford Courant. The account was confirmed by others present during the couple’s appearances in U.S. District Court in Hartford.
The existence of the federal investigation came to light in 2012, while Wilson-Foley was competing for the GOP nomination. Andrew Roraback, now a Superior Court judge, won the nomination in an August primary and lost to Democrat Elizabeth Esty in November.
But the emails released Monday show that rumors circulated in 2011 that Rowland was helping Wilson-Foley. A campaign worker identified only as “Political Advisor 1” warned Rowland in email Dec. 18, 2011 that questions were being asked:
“At a party last night, [a political associate] said there was talk about your role in [WILSON-FOLEY’s] campaign being subsidized by [FOLEY] and [WILSON-FOLEY] enterprises. I said it was news to me as well as your role. Not sure [political associate] believed me, but I gave it a shot. I have not completely reviewed Lisa’s response if asked, but we should have something[.]”
Rowland’s response: “interesting, where do you think he got info?”
Political Advisor 1 also warned Wilson-Foley about the dangers of being promoted by her husband’s company, which could be considered an illegal contribution.
“So, now, instead of talking about what we want to talk about we are in a story that has words like ‘illegal’ ‘skirting’ ‘violation’ and ‘wealthy.’ … While some people will see the ad, notice you and make the connection, most people won’t,” Political Advisor 1 wrote.
Rowland eventually agreed with the assessment:
“Putting Lisa in the ads gets us nothing, no name ID no credit politically, but will raise alot [sic] of ‘issues’ use of corporate $$ etc. think if Linda Mcmahon [sic], statrted [sic] doing WWF ads the press and the Dems will cream her, plus I know Brian thinks it gets her name out but it really doesn’t it just begs the issue. no [sic] gain. I know it seemed harmless but the more we think about it , [sic] it will bring legitimate criticism with no upside.”
Linda McMahon, a former chief executive of World Wrestling Entertainment, was then running for U.S. Senate.
Wilson-Foley was in a five-way race for the GOP nomination for an open congressional seat in 2012. The presence of Clark, who became a Farmington town council member after retiring from the FBI, always was a threat to make any Rowland connection news. It would be Clark who eventually filed a complaint April 12, 2012 about Rowland’s involvement in the campaign with the Federal Election Commission.
Another competitor was Mark Greenberg, who said that Rowland had approached him in 2010 about a similar off-the-books arrangement. Greenberg, who is a candidate again this year in the 5th Congressional District, said he declined the offer.
On April 26, 2012, according to the plea documents, Political Advisor 1 emailed Wilson-Foley seeking help in disputing Greenberg, who was referred to in the plea documents as Candidate 2. The advisor told Wilson-Foley, “if you have anything to refute [Candidate 2], I need it to start to f_ck this smuck [sic].”
If Wilson-Foley replied, it was not mentioned in the plea documents.
Because of Clark’s involvement, the case was investigated by U.S. Postal inspectors, instead of the FBI.
Chris Healy, a former Republican state chairman who worked on Wilson-Foley’s campaign in 2012 as a senior advisor, said Monday he had dismissed Clark’s complaint that Rowland actually was a paid campaign advisor as “sour grapes” at the time. Clark eventually dropped out of the race for lack of funding and delegate support.
Wilson-Foley and Foley addressed the campaign staff at the time, Healy said.
“We were told that was not the case,” Healy said of the claim that Rowland was a paid campaign advisor, not a volunteer. “It was the case of him working for Brian separately and his volunteering. We had no reason to doubt their veracity.”
Healy declined to say if he was interviewed by investigators or was referred to in the plea document.
The couple, whose business holdings include a popular golf course in Avon, are to be sentenced June 23 in U.S. District Court in Bridgeport by Senior Judge Warren Eginton.
Wilson-Foley first learned nearly two years ago, while she still was a candidate, that her campaign’s relationship with Rowland was the target of a federal investigation. It became public in June 2012, two months before the GOP primary, that investigators had interviewed her and her husband.
“I’ve known about it,” Wilson-Foley told The Mirror on June 12, 2012. “I was told not to say anything about it, so I didn’t.”
An element of the controversy two years ago was a question about the extent to which Rowland, in addition to advising Wilson-Foley, was promoting her candidacy on WTIC-AM or criticizing her rivals.
It was unclear Monday night if Rowland would return to the air Tuesday at 3 p.m.