Hot Seat Is Getting Hotter for Governor

Times Staff Writer

There was little doubt that a hot tub and cathedral ceiling would spruce up the cottage on the lake. The problem was that Gov. John G. Rowland allowed state employees and a politically connected contractor to pay for or perform the work on his summer retreat -- and then lied about how he financed the improvements.

The three-term Republican acknowledged this month he had not told the truth when he said he and his wife, Patty, had paid for those and other enhancements to the cottage in Litchfield, in the western part of the state. Rowland, 46, conceded that much of the work was done by the Tomasso Group, a company with millions of dollars worth of state contracts.

Several days later, Rowland used a Chamber of Commerce meeting to apologize for misleading the public, ask forgiveness and declare: “I should have paid more attention to people around me -- people who I trusted.”

But the governor’s remorse appeared to fall on deaf ears, as the clamor for his resignation has only grown louder around the state. Some citizens and lawmakers have urged impeachment, since Connecticut has no recall procedure. And the morning that Rowland apologized, two polls showed that most state residents want him out of office.


“It’s all about being honest,” said Jamaa Parks, 23, of Hartford. “It’s bad enough to do something like that -- take free labor and services. But don’t deny it and then come out later and say it was the truth after all. He’s the governor, and he should be held to a high standard of honesty. Get him out.”

Rowland and his chief of staff, Dean Pagani, have refused requests for interviews. However, the governor recently issued a statement listing friends and business associates who had paid for more than $30,000 worth of improvements at the cottage in 1997. The hot tub, the statement said, was a birthday present.

“None of the people mentioned ... received any benefit from my office or the state in exchange for their assistance,” said the governor’s statement, which added that Rowland was “continuing to cooperate with a review of this matter by the U.S. attorney’s office.”

Several Connecticut news organizations have reported that the U.S. attorney’s office in New Haven has subpoenaed documents from some of the contractors involved in the work on Rowland’s cottage. But spokesman Tom Carson said he could not confirm nor deny the existence of a U.S. attorney’s investigation into possible corruption charges against Rowland.


Chris Hoffman, a spokesman for Connecticut Atty. Gen. Richard Blumenthal, said his office is conducting an inquiry into the awarding of state contracts, “but the heavy water is being carried by the feds.” The state attorney general’s office can only investigate, not prosecute, criminal matters.

The cottage controversy -- dubbed “Bantam Lake-gate” by several media outlets that have called for Rowland’s resignation -- is the latest in a string of embarrassments for Rowland and his state.

In 1997, Rowland became the first Connecticut governor to pay an ethics fine after he accepted free concert tickets. This year, Rowland paid a $9,000 fine for using state credit cards for personal purposes and for not paying the going rate for vacations to homes in Florida and Vermont owned by the Tomasso Group.

Two years ago, Rowland sharply criticized former Bridgeport, Conn., Mayor Joe Ganim, who was indicted and later convicted for accepting clothing, wine and thousands of dollars worth of home improvements from city contractors. Ganim is serving a nine-year prison sentence.

Then in March, Rowland’s former deputy chief of staff, Lawrence Alibozek, pleaded guilty to accepting cash and gold in exchange for steering state contracts to certain companies -- among them the Tomasso Group. Alibozek, an avid gardener, told the court that he took kickbacks in gold coins and buried them for safekeeping in his backyard. Alibozek is awaiting sentencing.

Another scandal involved a $220-million loan issued by a state agency called the Connecticut Resources Recovery Authority to Enron Corp. Enron, which since has declared bankruptcy, defaulted on the loan. Rowland said he never spoke with Enron chief Kenneth Lay about the deal, but a series of company memos document conversations between Lay and Rowland.

And records released by Rowland show that another contractor who worked on the summer house, Anthony Cocchiola, also was a partner of the governor in a real estate project. Cocchiola Paving has received $1.3 million worth of state work since Rowland took office, according to a report in the New York Times.

Rowland was reelected last year, but the steady stream of unsavory disclosures has eroded his support.


A survey released Wednesday by Connecticut’s Quinnipiac University showed that 61% of those questioned disapproved of Rowland’s performance as governor. In the same poll, 73% said he was not trustworthy. In a separate poll taken about the same time by the University of Connecticut, 55% said Rowland should resign.

“By his own admission, he broke the law and he lied,” said Andrew Sauer, executive director of Common Cause, a political watchdog group. “That is why we are calling for his resignation: Essentially, no one can trust him.”

Impeachment is such a cumbersome process in Connecticut that Bill Curry, a former Democratic state senator who has twice run against Rowland, called resignation “the only graceful choice, obviously” that the governor could make.

Curry said corruption was so rampant in Connecticut that “we have turned into Louisiana with foliage. Connecticut thought its greatest problem was snootiness. But then it awakens to find it is Tammany Hall.”

But Herb Shepardson, chairman of the Republican state committee, dismissed the attacks on Rowland as “a partisan power play” on the part of “the ultra-left wing of the Democratic Party.”

Shepardson said the governor’s most recent disclosures about the improvements to his vacation cottage were “very, very complete” and that the same information had been provided to the U.S. attorney. The Republican Party and the state, Shepardson said, “have been rallying behind” Rowland.

“He is not going to resign or step aside,” Shepardson insisted.

Rowland, in his apology, said: “I plan on continuing to be a friend, continuing to be a good leader and continuing to be a good governor over these next three years.”