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Ex-Conn. governor pleads guilty

Former Gov. John G. Rowland, driven from office by a corruption scandal, pleaded guilty Thursday to a single federal charge that carries a sentence of up to five years in prison.
/ Source: The Associated Press

Former Gov. John G. Rowland, driven from office by a corruption scandal, pleaded guilty Thursday to a single federal charge that carries a sentence of up to five years in prison.

After reaching a deal with prosecutors, Rowland pleaded guilty to one count of conspiracy to steal honest service, a felony that also carries a possible $250,000 fine.

The plea deal ends the two-year-long investigation into corruption in the administration of Rowland, who resigned July 1 after 9½ years in office. Rowland’s lawyer, William F. Dow III, acknowledged the former governor was “the recipient of certain gratuities.”

Prosecutors told the judge that Rowland accepted $107,000 worth of vacations, work on his cottage and free flights from state contractors and others.

Assistant U.S. Attorney Nora Dannahey said the single charge also involves a conspiracy to defraud the Internal Revenue Service.

U.S. District Judge Peter Dorsey advised Rowland that as a convicted felon he would not be able to vote or hold public office.

“There was an effort being made to deprive Connecticut citizens of the honest services of its officials,” Dorsey said.

15 to 21 months in prison
Federal guidelines call for a sentence of 15 to 21 months in prison, the lawyers involved said. Sentencing was set for March. In addition to the possible sentence and fine, prosecutors said he could be forced to pay more than $35,000 to the IRS in unpaid taxes and interest.

“Obviously mistakes have been made throughout the last few years, and I accept responsibility for those,” Rowland told reporters after entering the plea. “But I also ask the people of this state to appreciate and understand what we have tried to do over the past 25 years in public service.”

The written plea agreement does not require Rowland to testify against others.

Gov. M. Jodi Rell, who took office after Rowland stepped down, said she felt “deep personal disappointment.”

“While we knew that this day might come, we were never really prepared for the reality of it. Today the state of Connecticut was humiliated, and I, as John Rowland’s former running mate and colleague, feel personally betrayed. When I first heard the news, I felt like I was punched in the gut.”

Rowland, 47, was once one of the GOP’s rising young stars. He became engulfed in scandal in December 2003 when he admitted accepting renovations at his lakeside cottage — including a hot tub and new heating system from employees and state contractors — and lying about it. Other gifts and favors soon came to light.

Rowland resigned amid legislative hearings that threatened to lead to his impeachment. Rell will fill the remainder of his term, which expires after the November 2006 elections.

In September, Rowland’s former co-chief of staff and a major state construction contractor pleaded not guilty to charges they ran a criminal organization from the governor’s office, trading contracts for gold coins, expensive meals and limousine trips.

A 15-count indictment accused former co-chief of staff Peter N. Ellef, his son Peter Ellef II and contractor William Tomasso of conspiring to steer state contracts from 1997 to 2003.

Ratings plummeted
For months, Rowland has insisted he never did anything in exchange for the gifts. But the drumbeat of allegations sent his approval ratings plummeting and led to demands for his resignation from both Democrats and Republicans.

Rowland received cigars, champagne, a canoe and free or discounted vacations from employees and friends — including some with state contracts. The FBI was even looking into whether Rowland skimmed money from low-stakes poker games he hosted.

One longtime friend, a state contractor, bought the governor’s Washington condominium at an inflated price through a straw buyer.

During the committee hearings, the governor’s lawyers criticized the investigation, arguing that the 10-member panel never set any standards for impeachment. Rowland fought a subpoena to testify on the grounds it violated the separation of powers between the legislative and executive branches. He announced his resignation days after the state Supreme Court ruled he could be compelled to appear before the committee.

The committee ended its investigation without deciding whether the governor had done anything that warranted impeachment.