Inside a federal court room in New Haven, the once feared Peter Ellef, former chief of staff to Gov. John Rowland, takes a guilty plea to spare his son jail time. And to avoid an unfriendly jury pool, according to his lawyer.
TV news reporter Shelley Sindland seemed exasperated as defense attorney Hugh Keefe stood outside the New Haven Federal Courthouse Tuesday morning, waltzing around a volley of questions about his client, former state official Peter Ellef. “C’mon you guys, this is what we knew was going to happen,” she said to the gaggle of print and television reporters around her, hoping they would help her interrogate the wily Keefe about Ellef and his co-conspirator William A. Tomasso’s guilty pleas in the federal corruption case.By cutting a deal with prosecutors, Ellef and Tomasso avoided trial, and Ellef’s son, Peter Ellef, Jr., skirts jail time. But Ellef and Tomasso agreed to pay $1 million in restitution to the state. The pair also faces up to five years in jail, loss of civil rights and additional $250,000 fines on felony counts of conspiracy to commit bribery and conspiracy to defraud the Internal Revenue Service.After years of investigation, and after being indicted last summer, Keefe said Ellef and prosecutors began negotiating two weeks ago. The deal was not finalized until Monday, Oct. 24.“Peter did today what he has always done, do what is best for his family,” Keefe said Tuesday. “When the opportunity presented itself to dismiss the case against his son,” Ellef took it. Keefe defended the edifices built by Tomasso and company as structurally sound, claiming inspections show them to be flawless. He had no answer, though, as to why Gov. M. Jodi Rell is thinking about closing the Connecticut Juvenile Training School, the $57 million youth jail Tomasso built. Tomasso won the contract for that with insider information. Any trial would have certainly investigated the minutiae of such deals, but Keefe said polls and focus groups of prospective jurors led them to conclude that they did not want to go to trial. A trial may have put Rowland on the stand, as well as current Gov. Rell.“Every demographic group was anti-defendant in this corruption case,” Keefe said. “The climate was dismal.“In the same gray and beige courtroom with chandeliers where Judge Peter Dorsey sentenced former Connecticut governor John G. Rowland to a year and a day in the pokey for tax evasion, Dorsey listened to these Rowland cronies admit that from 1997 to 2003, they broke the law.In a somber, sometimes mumbled voice, Judge Dorsey asked Ellef, Rowland’s former chief of staff, about his involvement in conspiring to funnel contracts to Tomasso, an executive with one of the state’s leading construction companies, in exchange for cash and other favors. The proceeding was short on details, long on legalese. Co-conspirator Lawrence Alibozek, who was Rowland’s deputy chief of staff, was discussed in passing. TREA, the front company which laundered much of the ill-gotten gains, and which allegedly stood for Tomasso, Responsiveness, Ellef and Alibozek, only merited mention in the plea agreement release.Tomasso led his companies, including Tunxis Management, to create false and fraudulent entries on corporate books and records in order to disguise the nature of some of these benefits to Ellef, Alibozek, and certain of their friends in whom these public officials had an interest, the prosecutor’s release said. After each of Judge Dorsey’s questions, Ellef responded in his booming baritone. Ellef told the court he takes medication for high blood pressure, diabetes, cholesterol, anxiety and sleep. None of these meds, he said, impair his judgment. Ellef, wearing a dark suit that contrasted his shock of white hair, occasionally reached for a pitcher of water.At 9:45 a.m., he uttered the word “Guilty.” To Ellef’s left, Tomasso remained motionless. The two conferred briefly, only after Tomasso said “Guilty” at about 10:35 a.m. Ellef and Tomasso will return to court Jan. 13, 2006 for sentencing. Until then, they are free on $10,000 bond. The plea deal for Tomasso recommends between 30 and 37 months in jail, although Dorsey made it clear he does not have to follow those guidelines.Tomasso’s attorney Thomas Murphy did the pleading for Tunxis Management Company. Tunxis Management will have an additional fine of between $85,000 and $204,000. Lawyer Timothy Moynihan spoke for Peter Ellef, Jr., and LF Design, Junior’s landscape company which benefited from the corruption. LF used its AMEX card to take $19,974.64 in income that he did not report to the IRS.Ellef’s son and the family publicist sat in the front row of the gallery. Sprinkled among the 35 or so other watchers were the state’s FBI leadership, Attorney General Richard Blumenthal and that horde of reporters.The $1 million fine, which will be paid within five days of the Jan. 13, 2006 sentencing, solves almost all the issues with Blumenthal’s corruption lawsuit. “No one wins,” Blumenthal said. “There is no total victory in a settlement.“A few loose ends remain for Blumenthal’s suit, like resolving issues with former Rowland public works commissioner Ted Anson.Once the hearing ended, Ellef wore a smirk. He donned his brown trench coat, and moved out into the lobby, where Keefe entertained a group of five or so journalists. Ellef smiled there, too.Ellef refused comment.