NEW HAVEN — Former Gov. John G. Rowland pleaded not guilty Friday to campaign corruption charges in U.S. District Court in New Haven, where his lawyer said he plans to take the case to trial.
Rowland, wearing a dark pinstriped suit and a pink striped tie, said little during his arraignment beyond “yes, your honor” to the questions from Judge Ellen Bree Burns. But his lawyer, Reid Weingarten, seemed defiant in and outside the courthouse.
“For what it’s worth, this case will go to trial. We’re eager to go to trial,” Weingarten told the judge.
Rowland, who served 10 months in federal prison on a conspiracy charge after resigning the governor’s office in 2004, is now facing seven new grand jury charges for attempting to conceal the extent of his involvement with two campaigns in the 5th Congressional District during the 2010 and 2012 elections cycles.
In an indictment released Thursday, prosecutors say Rowland “devised a scheme” to work for two Republican congressional candidates under a phony contract designed to hide his involvement from the government and the public. One of the candidates, Mark Greenberg, refused the offer in 2009. The other, Lisa Wilson-Foley, pleaded guilty to charges related to the 2012 campaign last week, when she and her husband Brian Foley implicated Rowland.
Outside the courthouse Friday, Weingarten told reporters that the allegations related to Greenberg’s campaign were bogus because Rowland never received any money from that candidate. With regard to the Wilson-Foley campaign, Weingarten said it was her legal responsibility to file accurate reports with federal elections regulators.
“The allegation is that she, the candidate, had an obligation to disclose to the FEC, in her legally mandated reports that Gov. Rowland was helping her. He had no responsibility whatsoever to file anything with the FEC. She has been allowed to plead to a misdemeanor. He, while working for her husband and doing real work, is facing 37 years of potential prison for a case involving her FEC returns,” Weingarten said.
As his lawyer spoke, Rowland exited the courthouse from a side door. The former governor and WTIC talk show host is free on a $250,000 non-surety bond. His travel is restricted to Connecticut. Judge Burns tentatively set a trial date for June 10.
Burns, who is 90 years old, told Weingarten she was also eager to see the case go to trial.
“I enjoy trials,” she said.
“I think you’ll enjoy this one your honor,” Weingarten answered.
The entire hearing lasted just under 10 minutes. Addressing the reporters on the steps of the courthouse, Weingarten said he expected the court to clear Rowland of all the charges. According to Hearst Connecticut, Rowland rejected a plea bargain for an 18-month sentence.
“We will have an aggressive challenge to these charges. We are looking forward to it. Most of all, we are looking forward to this trial and we fully expect our client to be fully vindicated,” he said.
The evidence against Rowland includes the texts of several emails sent from the former governor as he aggressively tried to involve Greenberg in a political consulting contract, paid through Greenberg’s animal rescue center in Bloomfield.
“I’m not as unpopular as your campaign manager would lead you to believe . . . especially in the 5th district. I can get you elected . . . If you are interested,” Rowland said in an email to Greenberg in May 2010, according to the indictment.
Prosecutors also have communications between Rowland and the Foleys as they drafted and entered a contract through the law offices of an attorney for Brian Foley’s nursing home company.
According to court documents from the Wilson-Foley case, even Rowland himself recognized that his help on her congressional campaign could be problematic if it were to be publicized.
“I am just a volunteer helping you and ‘many other Republican candidates’ in case anyone asks,” Rowland emailed Wilson-Foley in November 2011. “I want to stay under the radar as much as possible and get the job done.”
Rowland was released from prison in 2006 and took a job as director of economic development for the city of Waterbury in 2008. Two years later he began working as the host of an afternoon drive political talk show on WTIC. Rowland resigned from that job last week amidst calls from many, including Democratic Gov. Dannel P. Malloy, for WTIC to remove him from the airwaves.
As he signed off for the last time, Rowland cited “personal issues.”