Facing the likelihood of indictment in January, former Gov. John G. Rowland ended months of resistance Thursday and pleaded guilty to a single conspiracy charge in a deal with federal prosecutors that is expected to send him to prison.
Rowland, 47, a shining prospect in national Republican politics until a corruption scandal and impeachment inquiry forced his resignation July 1, reached the bottom of a historic downslide at 10:55 a.m. in U.S. District Court when a judge asked him: ``What is your plea?''
``Guilty,'' Rowland answered, quietly.
And in that instant the state's 86th governor, who demonstrated a charismatic political mastery during a quarter-century political career, became a felon.
Rowland's plea was the first public crack in a defense strategy that has seen all the major targets of the long-running federal corruption investigation refuse to cooperate with prosecutors. Rowland's agreement requires him to provide prosecutors with information about the conduct with which he is charged -- conduct that allegedly involved two men indicted in September: former top Rowland aide Peter N. Ellef and New Britain businessman William A. Tomasso.
Although he is not specifically required to testify against the two, defense lawyers say his testimony could help him win a more lenient sentence. Prosecutors have agreed to seek a federal prison term of 15 to 21 months and a fine of up to $40,000, but U.S. District Judge Peter Dorsey could revise that sentence. Dorsey tentatively set sentencing for March 11.
The plea also ends a months-long drama of on-again, off-again negotiations between prosecutors and Rowland's lawyer, William F. Dow III. The lengthy wrangling over a plea deal seems to have created some tension, even between lawyer and client. Members of the defense bar say Rowland has talked with lawyers from as far away as Washington, D.C., about taking his case.
Sources say Rowland six months ago rejected a deal similar to the one he entered into Thursday because it called for jail time. He became more amenable recently, leading to the drafting Wednesday of an agreement that was on, then off, then finally agreed to about 1 a.m. Thursday.
One difference this time, sources say, is that Assistant U.S. Attorney Nora Dannehy made it clear that the government intended to seek a grand jury indictment of Rowland, possibly in January, on several major charges, potentially including racketeering and conspiracy.
``It's different when you're not on the eve of indictment, and you haven't had a chance to fully process what the ... potential consequences are,'' said a person familiar with Rowland. The former governor apparently determined this was the best chance to spare himself and his family the distress and intense scrutiny involved in white-collar criminal cases, the person said, adding: ``They lay everything out in detail for everybody, including your wife and your kids.''
Thursday's dramatic events came just over a year after the FBI and federal prosecutors shifted the focus of an ongoing grand jury investigation to Rowland himself.
They made that move in following up on Courant disclosures that Rowland had received thousands of dollars worth of free or reduced-price improvements from state contractors and staff subordinates at their lakeside vacation cottage in Litchfield. The improvements included the now-infamous hot tub that Rowland first lied about when he said he paid for it himself; instead, a governor's office subordinate and her husband, a Rowland political appointee, paid for it.
The Litchfield cottage improvements were part of $107,042 in free services that Dannehy said Rowland accepted from state contractors and others in the form of vacations, work on the cottage and free chartered jet flights to Las Vegas and Philadelphia.
More than $15,000 worth of benefits came from people connected with the New Britain-based Tomasso Group, whose companies received more than $100 million in no-bid construction contracts from the Rowland administration. Tomasso gave Rowland three cut-rate vacation stays at homes in Vermont and Florida and performed free work at the Litchfield cottage.
In the plea agreement, Rowland admitted ordering the state transportation commissioner in 2000 to sign a lease agreement benefiting Tomasso in connection with construction and operation of the new Bradley International Airport parking garage. He also acknowledged taking no corrective action when his top staff members traveled to Ohio with William Tomasso for a private tour of an Ohio juvenile detention center -- giving Tomasso inside information so it could obtain a $50-plus-million contract to build the new Connecticut Juvenile Training School in Middletown.
Another $91,494 in benefits came from a private charter aircraft company, referred to in court papers as ``Entity A'' but identified by sources as Key Air of Oxford. Prosecutors charge that Rowland accepted free flights from the company between April 1999 and November 2000. Only one has been publicly reported: A flight to Las Vegas for Rowland and several friends in 2000.
In 2002, at the urging of Rowland's office, state legislators approved a retroactive tax-exemption bill ``which benefited only Entity A,'' the plea agreement said. A legislative analysis said the tax break was worth $800,000 immediately and $200,000 a year going forward.
A Key Air spokesman had no comment Thursday.
Rowland failed to report the total $107,042 in benefits on his tax returns from 1998 to 2001, and now owes $35,459 in tax and interest, according to the plea agreement signed by Dannehy and Rowland.
With his guilty plea, Rowland admitted to being part of a conspiracy, as Dorsey explained it, ``to deprive Connecticut citizens of the honest services of its officials'' -- including the governor. The conspiracy also impeded ``the lawful government functions of the Internal Revenue Service,'' prosecutors said in court papers.
Other participants in that conspiracy, according to the plea agreement, were former Rowland co-chief of staff Peter N. Ellef, top Tomasso executive William Tomasso, and former Rowland deputy staff chief Lawrence Alibozek.
Ellef and Alibozek split the cost of a propane heating system that Tomasso arranged for a New Britain firm to install at the cottage in 1999. Ellef used the governor's office to provide confidential state information to Tomasso businesses, and also pushed for the tax exemption for ``Entity A,'' the charter flight company, prosecutors said in court papers.
Moreover, Rowland intentionally ignored such Ellef efforts, prosecutors said in Thursday's plea documents. For example, ``defendant John G. Rowland consciously avoided obtaining complete knowledge of the details and full extent of Ellef's conduct'' concerning Tomasso, the prosecution papers said.
Alibozek pleaded guilty to corruption charges in 2003 and has been cooperating with prosecutors. Tomasso, Ellef, and Ellef's son -- whose landscaping business got lucrative private contracts from the Tomassos -- were indicted in September. They deny wrongdoing and have pleaded not guilty.
`You Are John Rowland?'
Rowland and his wife arrived in the high-ceilinged courtroom about 15 minutes early, and he quietly exchanged quips and smiles with Dow. Later, during the grave proceedings, Dow stood near and put his hand on Rowland's back as the former governor voiced his guilty plea.
Dorsey spent about 45 minutes before the plea explaining what the former governor was giving up by pleading guilty -- including his right against self-incrimination and his ability to vote or hold public office.
The long explanation began with an oddly formal exchange, considering Rowland's high public profile: ``You are John Rowland, are you sir?'' Dorsey asked.
``Yes, Your Honor,'' Rowland said. He made dozens of such brief replies, affirming that he was acting on his own free will, was not under medication or in therapy -- and even that he had not had an alcoholic beverage in the past 24 hours.
Released on $10,000 no-cash bond after an hour-long court appearance, a somber Rowland emerged shortly after 11 a.m. with his wife, Patricia, and made a brief statement to a mass of reporters and onlookers on the courthouse steps.
``Obviously mistakes have been made throughout the last few years, and I accept responsibility for those,'' said Rowland, dressed in the same crisp style of dark-blue suit he routinely wore in office. ``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.''
Rowland left his lawyer, William F. Dow III, to answer questions while he and his wife circled around the crowd, down the steps toward a dark SUV waiting on the street.
``Come on, Johnny Rowland, tell us how you stole our money!'' came the loud and repeated call of a Hartford-area community activist, Kuba Assegai. The Rowlands ignored him, got into the vehicle, and were driven away.
Thursday's plea agreement signals the end to the federal probe of Rowland -- which means he will not face criminal jeopardy in a number of episodes that drew grand jury scrutiny.
For example, Rowland received triple market rent for more than a year in the latter 1990s on his Washington, D.C., condominium unit from his millionaire friend, Robert V. Matthews, a state contractor who paid for his niece to live there. Matthews also bought the condo through a straw man -- well-known antiques dealer Wayne Pratt -- at an inflated price. Pratt pleaded guilty to a tax charge connected with that incident last March.
The status of the federal probe concerning Matthews is uncertain.
Rowland also will not face any trouble over Simsbury electrical contractor Kurt Claywell's gifts of Cuban cigars and champagne at a time when he was seeking state business.
Dow said that his client has ``been able to put this at long last behind him to really protect the interests of those closest to him, his family and friends. And we are looking forward to be able to return to this court and present to Judge Dorsey the catalog of accomplishments and contributions that have been made by Gov. Rowland.''
John R. Fornaciari, the Washington, D.C., attorney who represents the Tomasso family, said that federal prosecutors appear to have ``put a lot of pressure on a guy who was vulnerable, and he did what was best for him and his family. My clients are sorry that he finds himself in this position. I wish he had the wherewithal to fight this to a conclusion in court. ... My guys are supposed to have gotten millions of dollars in state contracts handed to them and for what a couple of nights in a farmhouse in the middle of Vermont? Is that all he got? It doesn't add up.''
Defense lawyer Hugh Keefe, who represents Ellef, Rowland's former co-chief of staff, expressed surprise that Rowland pleaded guilty and said it is too early to tell how Rowland's plea will affect his client.