As the curtain goes up, Rowland promises a different ending
New Haven – The last time was different. John G. Rowland arrived with an entourage, a cordon of protectors at his sentencing after a guilty plea a decade ago. Awaiting him then were political activists intent on a last word with their toppled governor. A guy in a mask waved a sign, “See ya in Hell, Johnny.”
On Friday, Rowland was more an object of media curiosity than public scorn. Connecticut’s 86th governor was the first to win three four-year terms, the first to resign in the face of impeachment, and the first to go to prison. But this was not the first time he climbed the steps to the U.S. Courthouse here to keep an appointment with a judge.
The curtain was going up on what his lawyer, Reid H. Weingarten, promised will be a different show, a new story that ends with a trial and a verdict, not a negotiated plea. Rowland was here to be arraigned on new charges in connection with what authorities say was his soliciting two congressional campaigns in 2010 and 2012 to secretly pay him as a political consultant.
“We will have an aggressive challenge to these charges,” Weingarten told reporters. “We are looking forward to it. Most of all we are looking forward to this trial, and we fully expect our client to be fully vindicated.”
It was a prelude, yet felt like a post-script.
Rowland, 56, of Middlebury pleaded not guilty to seven counts of an indictment returned the previous day by a grand jury in the same building. He was released on a non-cash bond with a routine admonition to not to leave Connecticut without permission.
“Yes, your honor,” Rowland said.
Weingarten, the noted criminal defense lawyer Rowland imported from Washington, D.C., told Senior Judge Ellen Bree Burns that he and his client were eager for trial. Burns, 90, appointed to the federal bench by Jimmy Carter when Rowland was in college, smiled and told Weingarten that she, too, enjoyed trials.
She set it on her calendar for 10 a.m. June 10.
Rowland had arrived early, before the media gaggle was fully assembled. He wore a dark, pin-striped suit with a white pocket kerchief, a white shirt and pink striped tie. Inside the courthouse, accompanied by three lawyers, he said he would have no comment on the case.
But he made small talk.
“How have you been?” he was asked.
“Oh, better,” he said.
Inside the courtroom, Burns read him his rights, inquired of his mental and physical health, informed him a lawyer would be provided at no charge if he qualified.
“I assume you’re pleading not guilty?”
“Yes, your honor.”
Like Rowland, Burns started her career at the State Capitol, hired as a lawyer to write legislation in 1947, a decade before Rowland was born. She stayed at the legislature until 1973, when Rowland was in high school.
The last time, Rowland stood before a different judge. He was sentenced in in 2005 by Peter C. Dorsey, who had attended Yale on the other side of the Green with Lowell P. Weicker Jr., the man who bested Rowland in 1990 on his first try for governor.
Dorsey cut Rowland a break, imposing a sentence of one year and one day in prison, significantly below the 15-to-21 month range recommended by sentencing guidelines. Among other reasons offered for his leniency, Dorsey saw no risk of recidivism by the disgraced politician.
It was the final act, or so it was thought, of a drama that had transfixed Connecticut for more than a year with tales of expensive gifts and favors from contractors and business executives who did business with the state.
Dorsey, 80, died in January 2012. According to the new indictment, at about the time of the judge’s death, Rowland was cashing the first of seven $5,000 checks from Brian Foley, a wealthy businessman who was buying Rowland’s help for the congressional campaign of his wife, Lisa Wilson-Foley.
Rowland’s campaign work was not reported as a campaign expense. The money was not reported as a campaign contribution. Foley and Wilson-Foley have pleaded guilty to conspiring with Rowland to hide the arrangement from the Federal Election Commission.
Weingarten told reporters after the arraignment that any criminal liability rests with Foley, Wilson-Foley and whomever filed her campaign finance reports, not Rowland. The former Republican governor, congressman and talk-radio host did legitimate consulting work for Foley’s health-care company, he said.
The lawyer strongly hinted that the defense will suggest that Foley and Wilson-Foley implicated Rowland to curry favor with prosecutors.
“He had no responsibility whatsoever to file anything with the FEC,” Weingarten said. “She has been allowed to plead to a misdemeanor. He, while working for her husband, doing real work, is facing 37 years of potential prison for a case involving her FEC returns.”
Rowland slipped away while Weingarten addressed the reporters.
One onlooker was hoping for a closer look at the former governor. It was former state Rep. James O’Rourke III of Cromwell, a Democrat who was skewered by Rowland on his talk show over an incident in which a drunken woman died from hypothermia after O’Rourke says he tried to give her a ride home from a bar.
Rowland’s indictment had been released the previous evening as Republicans gathered in Stamford for their annual fundraising dinner, named for the late U.S. Sen. Prescott S. Bush. A walk through the crowded ballroom found no defenders.
Ross Garber, who was counsel to the governor’s office during impeachment, shook his head when asked to comment. Rep. Arthur O’Neill, R-Southbury, the co-chairman of the bipartisan House impeachment committee, expressed sadness, not anger. Even knowing the indictment was coming, O’Neill confessed to surprise that Rowland was a target again of investigators and prosecutors.
“It’s really hard to believe,” O’Neill said.
O’Neill, a soft-spoken lawyer, was widely credited with diligently pursuing evidence of corruption, but he was no enemy of the governor’s. O’Neill said Rowland may have been the most gifted politician of his generation.
“I thought he really turned a corner in his life,” O’Neill said.
He saw Rowland nearly two weeks ago at services for Lou Rell, the husband of former Gov. M. Jodi Rell, who succeed Rowland. Rowland glided among the mourners after the funeral, engaging so easily in the small talk that the reserved O’Neill finds difficult.
As he watched, O’Neill said, Rowland seemed to move without care, comfortable in his own skin, in all probability aware an indictment was coming.
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