Accepting Illegal Gifts Shattered John Rowland's Life, And Ended His Astonishing Political Career
Story John Murray
The scene was unimaginable 18 months ago. Rowland had been cruising through his third term as governor, a rising star in the national Republican party. During a campaign stop in 2000, George W. Bush had proclaimed John Rowland to be "the future of the Republican party."
Rowland's collapse was staggering, a thud heard across the national political landscape.
Wearing a dark suit and a blue tie, Rowland read from prepared notes. "I'm ashamed to be here today," he said. "I have embarrassed myself, my family and the many people who have placed their faith in me over the past 25 years."
With his head down, and voice subdued, Rowland said, "I can see over the years that I lost sight of my ethical judgment. I do not blame anyone but myself. Over time a sense of entitlement and even arrogance developed. I let my pride get in the way."
While somber, Rowland remained composed until he talked about how the scandal impacted his family.
"Being the children and step-children of the governor is a difficult burden to bear, even in good times," he said. "But in bad times it is overwhelming. There is nothing worse for a father than to know he has let his children down....."
Rowland's voice cracked, and he began to cry.
"And as strong as my wife, Patty, is, I know this is tearing her apart."
Sitting a few feet behind Rowland, Patty and his two daughters began to cry. His son, R.J., stared straight ahead. After Rowland finished reading his statement, he returned to his seat and bowed his head. A court clerk brought him a box of tissues, and he swiped tears from his face.
Seconds later, federal prosecutor Nora Dannehy rose to address Judge Dorsey. Before she completed her first sentence, the Connecticut state flag, in the front left hand corner of the courtroom, shuddered, and nearly toppled to the ground.
Courtroom personnel had packed into the front of the proceedings to witness the first governor in Connecticut history to be sentenced to prison. One of the clerks had inadvertently kicked the base of the pole and nearly sent the state flag crashing to the floor.
It was a surreal moment in what had become a carnival of pain for John Rowland.
One toothless and unkempt man had forsaken the park bench for the day to "watch John Rowland whine."
Outside, protesters had chanted "Enron, Enron" when Rowland arrived at the courthouse, alluding to a dubious $220 million loan the state had lost under Rowland's watch. One state employee, Gene Brunell, donned a hideous monster mask and held aloft a sign stating "See Ya' In Hell Johnny."
A paranoid middle aged woman arrived at the courthouse five hours earlier and said Rowland had destroyed her life. The woman declined to say how Rowland had ruined her life, and after a brief conversation, suspected this reporter of being a CIA agent. She said Rowland and George Bush were trying to kill her. She said she wanted to tell her story before she died, and hoped that within a few hours, Rowland would be sentenced to life in prison.
Inside the court she sat in the second row, directly behind radio personality Brad Davis, and quietly applauded Nora Dannehy's passionate request that Rowland receive the harshest punishment.
The headlines in Connecticut newspapers that morning had informed readers of an added twist to the Rowland sentencing drama. Back in December, Rowland cut a plea bargain deal with federal prosecutors when he agreed to plead guilty to a federal conspiracy charge in exchange for a 15 to 21 month sentence in federal prison.
Days before the sentencing on March 18th, however, federal prosecutors requested that Rowland's prison term be doubled - they said he had tried to conceal a $416,000 retirement account from federal officials.
Dannehy blasted Rowland in a memorandum to Judge Dorsey the previous day. She wrote that "the defendant's continued disregard for the law and rules which other citizens are expected to follow underscores his arrogance, his continued sense of entitlement and a lack of sincere remorse for the conduct that put him in the position he is in today."
Rowland responded through court documents that he had never tried to conceal the asset, he just hadn't filled out the forms from the probation department correctly. The existence of the asset was in his divorce agreement, which had been handed over to federal authorities.
The question of how Judge Dorsey would handle the prosecution's last minute request loomed over the proceedings. Rowland and his supporters were on edge. The thought of suddenly getting three years in federal prison was daunting.
Once Dorsey entered the court, it quickly appeared that he had entered with his mind made up. To the disgust of federal prosecutor Dannehy, Dorsey allowed Rowland to amend his paperwork at the last minute to reflect his retirement account, and refused to consider the prosecution's request to increase potential prison time for Rowland.
Dannehy objected. She was highly irritated at Judge Dorsey's ruling and said it was "absurd that Rowland had failed to disclose his largest asset."
While Dannehy ripped at Rowland, Patty Rowland leaned forward and massaged the former governor's right shoulder. He was tense, and for one of the first times in the past 25 years, John Rowland had no control over the proceedings. Usually buoyant, often described as brash or flip, Rowland was subdued. This was a different John Rowland seated at the defense table.
A Spiritual Guide
After launching his political career directly out of college, he was elected a state representitive at the age of 24, was the youngest congressman in America at the age of 27, and was the youngest governor in America in 1994 when he was elected to lead Connecticut at the age of 37.
During his political ascent, Rowland said he slowly drifted away from the Roman Catholic church. When the roof caved in on Rowland 18 months ago he turned to the Reverend Will Marotti, of the New Life Church, in Meriden, for support.
Marotti met Rowland after inviting him to attend a rally in the church parking lot during the invasion of Iraq. Marotti, and others, wanted to show their support for the troops fighting in Iraq. On a whim Marotti faxed an invitation to the governor's office two days before the rally. Less than an hour later the Governor had accepted.
They met a few other times, but weren't close. Then Rowland lied at a press conference in December 2003 about renovations at his Bantam Lake cottage, and within a week his world had flipped upside down.
Marotti told the Courant that he felt a need to reach out to Rowland during the crisis. He faxed a note to Rowland and told him he was available if the Governor were interested in getting together for prayer. Rowland accepted, and soon Marotti was in the Governor's Mansion praying with John and Patty Rowland.
During the past 18 months their friendship has grown, and Rowland became a regular at the New Life Church on Sunday mornings. Marotti told the Courant in an interview that Rowland's presence at church "was awkward at first. It was sort of like the elephant in the room." But church members quickly accepted Rowland into the fold.
Marotti said John Rowland had a strong religious background, but acknowledged that "hardly anybody seeks God when everything is going well".
An interview with Marotti appeared in the Hartford Courant on March 18th, just hours before Rowland's sentencing. Marotti received permission from Rowland to speak to the media, and the story had appeared beneath the headline "A Spiritual Guide For A Fallen Leader".
Marotti said he planned to visit Rowland in prison and said "I think history will show that John Rowland will have more of an impact, and help more people, out of office. He wants to serve."
Marotti entered the court minutes before Rowland and sat down in the front row, reserved for Rowland supporters. Marotti turned to greet the people around him. He swiveled to shake hands with two middle aged men in the row directly behind him.
The men introduced themselves as "angry taxpayers" and asked Marotti why Rowland had lied to the state of Connecticut.
"We only need to confess to the almighty," Marotti said, and then he turned around and faced forward.
But the men didn't quit. "How can he lie?" they asked. "What does God say about that?"
Obviously the two angry taxpayers had read the Courant article that morning. They taunted Rowland's renewed spirituality. "Sticks and stones," Marotti said, and he continued to face forward. The men were loud enough to be heard by Rowland's family and supporters, but not loud enough to draw attention from court security.
Like a mantra, they repeated "He found God, but he can't find $416,000." At one point the Reverend Cornell Lewis, an imposing black minister from Hartford, and a Rowland supporter, turned around and warned the two men to "shut-up."
After a stare-down with Lewis, they did, just in time for the legal jousting to begin.
For a brilliant politician who was elected the youngest congressman in America, and later, the youngest governor in America, and whose name had once been bandied about as a future candidate for vice-president, or president, his fall from grace had created a thud heard around the country.
Compounding the pain, John Rowland had gone from the most powerful and influential man in Connecticut, to the punch-line of a bad "Corrupticut" joke. He was now being lumped together in the public's mind with former Bridgeport mayor, Joe Ganim, and former Waterbury mayor, Phil Giordano, who are both serving long sentences in federal prison.
Rowland disliked Ganim and Giordano immensely, and to be tossed into the same salad bowl with them, was humiliating.
Navigating through the media was bizarre as well. There were dozens of journalists in and around Hartford that used to eat out of his hand, laugh at all his one-liners, clamor to get a word with him, or a photograph. For nine years John Rowland had an uncanny ability to control and entertain the majority of journalists covering state politics.
The relationship soured in December 2003 when Rowland publicly admitted to lying about renovations at his Bantam Lake cottage, and for the past 15 months, the media's relentless negative assault left Rowland battered and bloody.
The Hartford Courant was the one media outlet that had consistently covered Rowland's nine years in office with an adversarial tone (some say negative and slanted). While the Manchester Inquirer was the first newspaper in the state to break the story about Rowland's financial dealings with state contractors, the Courant has consistently touted itself as the paper that toppled John Rowland from office.
Inside the courthouse a Courant columnist seated in the third row said "It was our guys who broke this story open."
There have been other media outlets quick to pound their chests and hold Rowland's scalp aloft, television pundit Mark Davis among them, but the media didn't break this story anymore than Mark McGwire broke the home run record without steroids.
Rowland's demise was triggered by a federal investigation into corruption, and the media's role has been that of a shill for the Feds. The investigators leaked information to the press in an effort to increase pressure on Rowland, information that was gathered in a secret grand jury probe.
With or without the media's intense coverage of Rowland's misdeeds, he was going to eventually end up in federal court. The media quickened his demise, but did not trigger it.
When Dow addressed the hearing he asked Judge Dorsey for a downward departure from the federal sentencing guidelines of 15 to 21 months.
Dow painted a picture of the Connecticut media driven by "a morbid fascination of watching someone be destroyed", and of the federal government trying to change the plea bargain deal at the last minute.
Dow said that Rowland had accepted services - not money - and pointed out this was not a bribery or extortion case. Rowland had accepted work on his cottage on Bantam Lake, several vacations from an influential state contractor and free charter air flights across the country. In addition he had not paid taxes on the $107,000 in gifts.
Dow said Rowland had fallen from almost as high as anyone could go, and done so in a painfully public manner.
As Dow talked about the positive accomplishments in Rowland's nine and half years as the state's chief executive, the former governor bowed his head at the defense table, his shoulders slumped forward. Dow talked about UConn 2000 (a billion dollar overhaul of the University of Connecticut), Adriene's Landing (a massive development on the Connecticut River in Hartford), the Palace Theater in downtown Waterbury, Rowland's work with the community colleges, charter schools and his intense interest in revitalizing cities throughout Connecticut.
Dow said that the media had chosen to focus on Rowland's misdeeds during the past 18 months and ignored his significant accomplishments in office. The picture of John Rowland in the press was incomplete, Dow said, the man had often gone way beyond his role as governor to assist those in need. Dow cited Rowland's immediate and compassionate response to the deadly shooting at lottery headquarters, and referred to a letter written to the court by Dean Pagani, Rowland's former chief of staff.
Pagani wrote about the aftermath of September 11th when Rowland sat alone in a room with just a phone and a legal pad and made calls to victims' families.
"There were no cameras and no reporters," Pagani wrote. He did it because it was the right thing to do."
Dow closed out his argument for leniency by restating that John Rowland had been a star of the national Republican party, a man whose bright future was shattered in the most public and humiliating way.
Dow asked for home confinement.
"In over 25 years of being in public service," he said, "I've given many, many speeches, but this is not a speech. This is an attempt to explain how I violated the law and subsequently lost the respect of the people I have tried to serve."
He stated he began a career in public service with high ideals and values and was proud to be part of family that had served the public for two generations.
"I sincerely believe that I've had a positive impact and affect on many citizens of the state, on the cities and towns in which they live," he said. "However I realize that whatever good works I have accomplished will be overshadowed by the events that have led me here today. I bear total responsibility for that."
Rowland admitted accepting gratuities from others without considering the source.
Rowland wept while describing the pain of letting his children down. He told the court that his greatest concern was for the welfare of his family and that "his greatest wish was to bring happiness back into their lives," and "give them their lives back."
He said although he made mistakes, he is confident in the future that he will find a way to serve others.
" I do believe that there is a spiritual purpose in all the tragedies and all the failures we encounter in life. That's been my strength and my families strength, and although this has been a horrific experience for me, it has also been a humbling and meaningful journey towards personal and spiritual growth."
Rowland closed his ten minute statement with a plea. "Your Honor," he said, "I want my family to know, I want my friends to know, and I want the people of the state of Connecticut to know, that I am sorry and I ask their forgiveness."
The case was not about bad managerial style and poor judgment, Dannehy said, it was about arrogance and greed and a six year conspiracy to corrupt the office of the governor. While Dannehy railed against him, Rowland turned to see how his family was holding up. He asked his kids if they were okay, and they nodded. Rowland's eyes were red and puffy.
Dannehy was riled up over Rowland's miscalculation of his finances. "If we allow John Rowland to casually mislead the court to play on its sympathy," she said. "What message does that send to the people who lack this man's charm, and eloquence, and his public relations savvy."
If John Rowland were not held accountable for his actions, Dannehy asked, then how can the court hold the unsophisticated accountable when they come before the court. "We can't have two sets of rules," she said. "One for the savvy and one for the poor. If we do that then the rules mean nothing."
Judge Dorsey rested his head in the palm of his hand and listened intently. He had done the same during Dow and Rowland's statements. Dannehy said Rowland had been a good politician, but his community work did not minimize what he had done wrong.
In closing, Dannehy swung for the fence. "If you impose a lenient sentence on John Rowland you will send a message that public trust in government is not that important," she said. "Honest government has to matter. Send that message loud and clear. Without that message, we are all lost."
Dorsey said he would use Rowland's omission of the $416,000 on court documents in the sentencing and said the guidelines called for 15 to 21 months in prison.
"More," shouted out the women who said Rowland and Bush were trying to kill her.
Rowland's daughters, Kirsten, 20, and Julianne, 16, turned to look.
Dorsey said elected officials "must serve the highest and best interest of Connecticut. You were not elected to collect gratuities."
Dorsey paused for a moment and then said, "I sentence you to 12 months and one day in federal prison, followed by four months home confinement, three years probation and 300 hours community service."
Rowland again turned around to see how his wife and kids were holding up. The girls were crying, but nodded that they were okay.
Rowland had previously submitted paperwork requesting he serve his time at Fort Devens, a federal prison near Boston, and Judge Dorsey recommended he do so. Rowland said he was prepared to begin serving his sentence in two weeks, and Dorsey ordered Rowland to surrender to federal marshals on April 1.
Dannehy was upset that Judge Dorsey hadn't heeded her plea for a harsher sentence. She asked him to state a reason on the record for the downward departure from federal sentencing guidelines.
Dorsey disagreed that there had been a downward departure. He reasoned that 12 months in prison, and four months of home confinement, added up to 16 months, which fell within the 15 to 21 month guideline. He further said he factored in Rowland's 25 years of public service and his responsibility to five children as reasons he hadn't thrown the book at him.
In closing the proceedings Judge Dorsey looked directly at Rowland and said "Life still has a long way to go for you. I wish you good luck."
Rowland turned towards his family and embraced his two daughters, Kirsten and Julianne, who sobbed as they buried their faces in his chest. Rowland hugged his son, R.J., and then embraced his wife, Patty.
They stood for nearly two minutes, Patty sobbing, the family gathered around, John Rowland arms clasped tightly around his wife.
Patty looked up at him and whispered "It will be all right."
Reporters pressed close to the railing hoping to get a comment from the former governor.
In politics, loyalty had always been paramount to Rowland, and those that had publicly stood by his side were few. He ignored the media and acknowledged his minister, two fellow church goers of the New Life Church in Meriden, Reverend Cornell Lewis, and radio personality Brad Davis and his wife, Rosanna.
Court personnel then led Rowland to the basement of the courthouse where he had his mug shot and fingerprints taken.
Helicopters buzzed overhead. Police on massive chestnut colored horses stationed themselves on the sidewalk feet away from the media horde. Food vendors did a brisk business selling hot dogs and pretzels in the shadows of lady justice.
Rowland's attorney, William Dow III was the first to address the throng. He said he and the governor were pleased with the day's outcome and had no plans to appeal the sentence. "We are grateful that we appeared before a judge who has the experience, sensitivity and wisdom to take an objective perspective," he said.
When the team of federal investigators and prosecutors emerged a few minutes later, their mood was grim.
Deputy U.S. Attorney John Durham said his office was disappointed with Rowland's sentence, but they "were pleased that a corrupt public official is going to prison."
Michael Wolf, head of the FBI in Connecticut, said Rowland's sentence is proof that federal investigators are committed to removing "those individuals who line their pockets at the public's expense."
While Wolf was speaking several photographers received word via radio that Rowland was exiting the rear of the courthouse, and they grabbed their gear and bolted around back.
Journalists were angry and frustrated that Rowland had given them the slip, but there was nothing more for him to say.
The media and public response to Rowland's prison sentence was swift. A majority of Connecticut residents polled said the former governor got off too easy for his crime.
The Hartford Courant editorial two days later called it "a disgracefully short term of one year and one day", a "creampuff sentence" and "a mild tsk, tsk."
The editorial bashed Rowland as "incorrigible" and concluded that "there is nothing to suggest that Mr. Rowland will emerge from prison a changed man."
Atty. Richard Meehan, who defended Bridgeport Mayor Joe Ganim in a corruption case last year, had a different take on the sentence. He said that the pain and humiliation John Rowland has experienced this past year - resigning from office, losing a brilliant political career, becoming a convicted felon - had to be taken into account when analyzing his punishment.
"The magnitude of such a fall from grace was not trivialized by this sentence," he said. "It was the essence of it."
(Just days before John Rowland was to report to Fort Devens, Massachusetts, the U.S. Bureau of Prisons assigned him to Loretto Prison Camp, just east of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. Rowland began serving his sentence April 1)
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