Clamor for Conn. governor to quit grows louder

State, U.S. investigations under way

most residents want him out, polls show

December 22, 2003|By Elizabeth Mehren | Elizabeth Mehren,LOS ANGELES TIMES

HARTFORD, Conn. - There was little doubt that a hot tub and a 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 that he had not told the truth when he said he and his wife had paid for those and other enhancements to the cottage in Litchfield, in the northwestern 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 and to ask forgiveness. "I should have paid more attention to people around me - people who I trusted," he told his audience.

But the governor's remorse appeared to fall on deaf ears, as the clamor for his resignation has grown louder around the state. Some state residents and lawmakers have urged impeachment because Connecticut has no recall procedure. And the morning that Rowland apologized, two polls showed that most 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. But 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, it stated, 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 neither confirm nor deny the existence of a U.S. attorney's investigation into possible corruption charges against Rowland.

,A spokesman for Attorney General Richard Blumenthal said the state office is conducting an inquiry into the awarding of contracts, "but the heavy water is being carried by the feds."

The cottage dispute is the latest embarrassment for Rowland and the state.

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

Two years ago, Rowland sharply criticized former Bridgeport 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.

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 told the court that he took kickbacks in gold coins and buried them for safekeeping in his back yard. Alibozek is awaiting sentencing.

Another scandal involved a $220 million loan issued by the Connecticut Resources Recovery Authority to Enron Corp. Enron, which has since declared bankruptcy, defaulted on the loan. Rowland said he never spoke with Enron chief Kenneth L. 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's 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 re-elected last year, but the steady stream of unsavory disclosures has eroded his support.

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

Bill Curry, a former Democratic state senator who has run twice against Rowland, called resignation "the only graceful choice, obviously."

But Herb Shephardson, chairman of the state GOP committee, dismissed the attacks as "a partisan power play" on the part of "the ultra-left wing of the Democratic Party."

Shephardson 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 Los Angeles Times is a Tribune Publishing newspaper.

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