Troubled governor clings to term

As more scandals mount, Connecticut's Rowland refuses to step down

February 29, 2004|By Stevenson Swanson | Stevenson Swanson,CHICAGO TRIBUNE

HARTFORD, Conn. - Hardly a day goes by now that does not bring more bad news for three-term Connecticut Gov. John G. Rowland.

The Republican governor, who has admitted he lied about paying for work that was done on his weekend cottage by state contractors, was served last week with a subpoena from a legislative committee that is considering whether he should be impeached. On Friday, the commission issued more subpoenas to his aides and others.

The state panel's inquiry is just one of three that have been launched to investigate questions about the governor's apparent conflicts of interest and favorable deals. Both the U.S. attorney's office here and the Connecticut attorney general are investigating whether politically connected contractors received special treatment from the state.

The rush of developments in the cottage scandal has shaken the state nicknamed "the land of steady habits" and turned the once-popular moderate Republican into a political pariah.

A recent Quinnipiac University poll found that only 10 percent of respondents thought Rowland was honest and trustworthy.

"A lot of people have referred to him as the deceased at a funeral who doesn't realize he's dead," said Howard Reiter, a University of Connecticut political science professor. "I just don't know of any other Connecticut governor who's been in this much trouble."

All this trouble comes only months after Californians voted in a recalled Gov. Gray Davis, a Democrat, for Republican Arnold Schwarzenegger.

As for Rowland, he enjoyed a 78 percent approval rating in December 2001 after cutting taxes and presiding over a booming state economy in the late 1990s. He was easily elected to a third term in November 2002.

Rowland, who was a U.S. congressman before he was elected governor in 1994, was once a rising star in the Republican firmament. A popular governor from the Northeast, like Christie Whitman of New Jersey or Tom Ridge of Pennsylvania. Like them, he represented the moderate wing of the party, and, like them, he was seen as a potential vice presidential pick.

"There's no question that over the last nine years, Governor Rowland has been a very skillful governor," said state Sen. William Nickerson, a Republican from Greenwich, an affluent New York suburb in the southwestern corner of the state. "You'd have to say there are two things going on parallel and largely nonintersecting tracks. In governmental terms, there's been the very skillful movement of the Rowland agenda. And then there have been the ethical missteps."

Rowland, 46, has paid $17,000 in ethics fines since 1997. And, in an appointment that raised eyebrows, the governor's former driver was named in 2001 to head the state's homeland security agency.

But those were, as Nickerson says, missteps compared with the fall that began in December.

That's when Rowland admitted he had provided "information that was incorrect and incomplete" when he told reporters that he had paid for a hot tub and thousands of dollars of renovations to his weekend cottage, including a cathedral ceiling, cabinetry and a stone patio.

The work was paid for by some of Rowland's closest aides or provided free by a construction company that received more than $100 million in no-bid contracts from the state.

"I have lived my own personal nightmare," Rowland told Connecticut residents in a statewide telecast last month. "I lied, and there are no excuses."

Although he admits he lied about the cottage work, Rowland says he has never done anything to benefit the people who helped him, Chief of Staff Dean Pagani said.

With his recent woes, Rowland has kept a low profile. Last month, when President Bush attended a fund-raiser for his re-election campaign in Greenwich, Rowland, the chairman of Bush's Connecticut campaign, was nowhere to be seen.

But the bad news keeps coming. About two weeks ago the U.S. attorney's office signaled it was widening its investigation into Rowland's dealings with state contractors when it issued subpoenas for nine years of the governor's papers, including phone records, expense reports and contract reviews.

And the latest Quinnipiac poll found that 71 percent of those surveyed said Rowland has lost the ability to govern; for the first time, a majority of Republicans said he should resign.

Rowland has rejected that course of action, saying he intends to do the job he was elected to do. His term is up in November 2006.

If the legislative committee finds there are sufficient grounds for impeachment, the question will go before the state House of Representatives. If that chamber votes to impeach the governor, Rowland will stand trial in the state Senate.

The Chicago Tribune is a Tribune Publishing newspaper.

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