Renovations May Not Add Up: Value Of Rowland Cottage Work May Be Higher Than Permits Show

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In the six years since he bought a vacation place in Litchfield, Gov. John G. Rowland has transformed the place from an ``almost uninhabitable'' cottage to a comfortable lakeside retreat, with a new kitchen, cathedral ceiling and waterfront hot tub.

But town files on the Bantam Lake property leave significant gaps in the public record that is supposed to document what work was done, who did it and how much it cost. Neither Rowland nor the primary contractors on the project would discuss the job at all. The lead contractor said he was ``told by people'' not to talk about his work; he refused to say who the people were.

But a review of what documents are available and interviews with subcontractors located by The Courant indicate that the value of the work done on the cottage -- including the new kitchen, a heating system, electrical work, new windows, a new deck with hot tub and structural alterations to raise the living room ceiling -- likely exceeded the total of $13,500 reported on the three permits on file with the town.

One source, familiar with the condition of the cottage when Rowland bought it, estimated that the cost of necessary renovations might have been three times that amount.

The primary contractors on the project, all of whom refused to describe their work, included:

Rowland friend and political supporter Brian Baker of Patrick Baker & Sons in Southington. The firm is best known for its work renovating churches, including St. Patrick's Cathedral in New York; it registered with the state as a home improvement contractor in 1997, just weeks before a permit was issued for remodeling of the cottage. It was Baker who said he had been ``told by people'' not to talk about the work, although he acknowledged that he oversaw the renovations.

Baker's name does not appear on the permit for $8,000 in remodeling work, but a painter and a cabinet maker who said they worked at the cottage both identified Baker as the man who hired them. Both said they were told by Baker that if they did the work on the governor's cottage at reduced prices, they might be in line for state work. No state jobs ever materialized, the said.

A Waterbury electrician whose name appears on the permit for $1,500 in electrical work. ``I did a job for John,'' he acknowledged, but refused to discuss it further and hung up.

A New Britain-based heating contractor who said he had been advised by his lawyer not to talk about the heating system he installed in the cottage. The permit says the work cost $4,000.

Rowland, too, refused to discuss the work on the cottage. ``Consistent with past practice, the governor is not going to comment on family or personal matters,'' the governor's chief of staff, Dean Pagani, said.

But some of Rowland's ``personal matters'' have come under critical public scrutiny in recent years, including his acceptance of four free or deeply discounted vacations from entities doing business with the state. Earlier this year, Rowland paid almost $9,000 in restitution and fines to settle an Ethics Commission complaint about the vacations.

Three of those vacations, for which Rowland repaid $5,305, were at properties owned by the Tomasso family, owners of Tomasso Brothers Inc. and several subsidiaries. The TBI companies have come under scrutiny by federal and state investigators looking into possible kickbacks, bid-rigging and other corruption in the Rowland administration.

An Earlier Flap

The cottage renovations were begun after Rowland and his wife purchased the cottage in summer 1997 for $110,000. The acquisition prompted allegations by Democrats that the Rowlands got a sweetheart deal when they bought the cottage from the local White Memorial Foundation, which owns land around Bantam Lake and leases property to cottage owners. The foundation's president was Arthur Diedrick, Rowland's appointee as state economic development czar.

The flap eventually died down. But now, a closer look at Rowland's renovation of the property raises questions similar to the ones that arose six years ago about its acquisition: Did he receive special treatment? Did he pay enough for the work done?

The Courant began re-examining public records of the renovation work on the governor's Litchfield property after the disclosures about Rowland's vacations to Tomasso properties.

There is at least one connection between the renovations at Rowland's cottage and a company connected to the Tomassos.

The company that installed a heating system and a propane tank -- Link Mechanical Services of New Britain -- had worked on at least one state project handled by one of the Tomasso companies. Link also worked years ago on the Avon home of the governor's former co-chief of staff, Peter Ellef, whose relationship with the Tomassos is a focus of the federal investigation. More recently, Link worked on the new home of Scott Boos, the project manager for TBI Construction Inc., the construction arm of The Tomasso Group, on the Long Lane Juvenile Center in Middletown.

The juvenile center is one of at least three projects federal authorities are investigating as possibly having been steered to Tomasso. Link also has done a minimum of $18,000 in work in conjunction with Tunxis Management, another Tomasso company, on at least one state building that Tunxis managed since the late 1990s, state records show.

Christopher Link, owner of the heating firm and air conditioning firm, acknowledged the Tomassos have referred work to him in the past and called them ``phenomenal people'' and ``wonderful customers.'' He said he has never been questioned by federal investigators about his work on any project with the Tomassos.

However, he declined to discuss the job he did on Rowland's cottage or who referred him to it, after consulting his attorney who, Link said, advised him not to talk ``just because there's a huge, ongoing investigation.''

Link took out a heating permit in Litchfield in 1999 that estimated the value of his work at $4,000.

The only other permit in the Litchfield building department's file on the Rowland property is a July 28, 1997, electrical permit taken out by Ron Shortell, of Astro Electric in Rowland's hometown of Waterbury, estimating the value of his work at $1,500. Shortell sounded annoyed at being asked about the job six years later, and said, ``I did a job for John. ... He paid me.'' Asked if all the work he did was inside the house, he answered yes. But he said the specifics were nobody else's business, then said ``we're all set'' and hung up.

Permit Questions

If the $8,000 cost submitted to the town for the work done by Baker and his subcontractors is an understatement, Rowland would not be the first homeowner to lowball a building permit. A town's fee for a permit is based on the value of the work involved -- the lower the value, the lower the fee.

Baker -- a Rowland friend who in the 1990s helped stage a political fund-raising event for the governor at the Southington home of top Rowland administration public works official P.J. Delahunty -- would not answer questions about how much he was paid or by whom, what work he did, or how he got the job.

``I'd love to set the record straight, but I've been told by people not to talk about this,'' Baker said in a brief interview. He would not identify what ``people'' told him not to talk about the job or why.

However, if the subcontractors' recollections are correct, then the estimate on the permit for Baker's work is grossly off-base, or he collected little or no money from his longtime friend.

The subcontractors estimate their costs alone totaled nearly $8,000. In addition, those same subcontractors said they were promised by Baker there'd be state work in the future if they did the governor's cottage cheaply.

``I was told if I did the work on the cheap I might get work at the state Capitol or the governor's mansion, but it never happened.'' said Glenn Lauzier.

Lauzier, who owns a cabinet making shop in Winsted, built pine cabinets for the kitchen, installed a green laminate countertop and breakfast bar, and installed a new kitchen floor at Rowland's cottage.

Lauzier said the floor cost about $800 and the custom built cabinets and countertops about $3,500.

Another subcontractor, Robert Bilodeau Jr. of Bristol, said he spent two days at the cottage putting up sheet rock and painting the living room after the cathedral ceiling had been installed.

Bilodeau estimated the job cost about $3,500. Part of the reason it cost so much was Patricia Rowland's insistence on using expensive Ralph Lauren paint, Bilodeau said. He also said Baker suggested he might get more work from the state.

Bilodeau said Baker paid him. Lauzier doesn't remember who paid him, although he knows it was not Rowland.

Baker would not comment on the subcontractors' claims about offers of state jobs.

There were other costs as well associated with the cottage renovation including a professional engineer's drawings for the ceilings by Joseph Calabrese, a Waterbury engineer who two years later also did a sketch in connection with an addition to the Bridgewater home of Rowland's commissioner of public works, Theodore Anson. Rowland forced Anson to resign in September after it was disclosed that Anson accepted free architectural plans for that home addition project from a major Tomasso subcontractor on state jobs, Kaestle Boos of New Britain. Charles Boos, one of the principals of Kaestle Boos, is the father of Tomasso manager Scott Boos.

Calabrese said he did not remember how much he charged for the plans on Rowland's cottage, and said he was brought into the job by Baker. Calabrese claimed the reason he was involved in both Rowland and Anson's house renovations is because he was the only engineer in the area who does that kind of work and contractors knew that, so they have called him.

Other improvements to the property also lack details in town records -- or are not recorded at all. For example, the town approved a stone patio in the yard, according to minutes of the town's conservation commission. The minutes do not indicate who applied for the patio work. No contractor is listed anywhere in Litchfield public records or in correspondence to the White Memorial Foundation.

There is no permit or other document concerning the wooden, lakeside deck and hot tub, although the man who served as Litchfield's land-use administrator back then said a homeowner would need at least an electrical permit to install the tub.

``There needs to be a building permit for a [hot tub] because I'm assuming there would be an electrical hookup needed for it,'' said Martin Connor, the land use administrator for the town of Litchfield in the late 1990s, who is now the town planner for Torrington.

Also, a spa or hot tub in such an area without sewers ``typically'' needs to be approved by the Torrington Area Health District because of environmental concerns about the periodic disposal of the 100 or more gallons of water in it, said district senior sanitarian Dick Rossi. The health district's files show no such application pertaining to Rowland's address, Rossi said.

The tub on the Rowlands' deck, which appears large enough for several people, has an electrical conduit attached.

``Uninhabitable''

At the time Rowland purchased the cottage, the foundation's then-executive director, Gene Marra was quoted as saying the cottage needed a lot of work after the death of a man who had leased it for 45 years, and that the foundation had some renovations done while it was vacant. Marra now says he was misquoted, and that the foundation didn't pay for any of the work done inside or outside of Rowland's cottage.

Marra says the foundation was happy to sell the cottage to Rowland because it was nearly ``uninhabitable'' and the foundation didn't want to spend a its own money to fix it up.

``What they did with the cottage was up to them,'' Marra said of the Rowlands.

That Baker was even doing the renovations would seem strange if not for the personal connection to Rowland.

The company is known for church renovations and has worked on one of the most famous churches in the world the Cathedral of St. Patrick in New York City, according to the Baker firm's website. The company also sells religious goods from its showroom in Southington. It has done about $15,000 in business with the state -- much of it with the Department of Corrections -- in the past five years.

Both Bilodeau, the painter, and Lauzier, the kitchen subcontractor, were surprised when Baker called them about the job. At the time the cottage was renovated both men had done lots of work for Baker; neither does now.

``He [Baker] usually did much bigger jobs but we knew he was a friend of the governor's and figured that's why he was doing it.'' Bilodeau said. ``That's the only time I ever remember him doing a house renovation.''

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