Could this be the end of the road for former Gov. John G. Rowland? If once again convicted of political and financial malfeasance, will he ever be taken seriously when he’s released from prison a second time? And moreover, will his legal troubles drag down Republican candidates, especially the six running for the privilege of unseating Gov. Dannel P. Malloy?
In the eyes of the state’s political observers, Rowland has remained a fascinating figure ever since he burst on to the scene in 1984 by riding President Ronald Reagan’s coattails and unseating Democratic incumbent William Ratchford for Connecticut’s 5th Congressional District seat. A gifted politician, Rowland went on to win the governorship in 1994 and won re-election twice before resigning in disgrace after getting caught with his hand in the cookie jar early in his third term.
After emerging from 10 months in the poky, Rowland professed himself a changed man and got a job as economic development coordinator in his hometown of Waterbury. So far, so good.
Eventually, however, the still-ambitious Rowland felt the need for more exposure and more money, so he landed a job as afternoon drive-time host at WTIC 1080 AM. In a line-up that included the ornery libertarian Jim Vicevich and right-wing blowhard Rush Limbaugh, the moderate Rowland quickly emerged as the ideological grown-up during afternoon drive.
But the move to radio also proved to be Rowland’s undoing. Greater exposure also led to more temptation and infinitely more opportunities for chicanery. Having a 50,000-watt megaphone gave Rowland the ability to peddle what remained of his influence.
Enter Lisa Wilson-Foley and her husband, Brian Foley, both of whom recently pleaded guilty to constructing a harebrained scheme to pay Rowland for working on Wilson-Foley’s campaign for Rowland’s old congressional seat by cutting checks to him as a healthcare consultant to Foley’s nursing home company, thereby concealing campaign expenses.
The federal government really frowns on this, which is why Rowland was indicted last week on seven counts of scheming to hide his involvement in congressional campaigns. Last time around — even amid evidence that the scope of his corruption was far greater—Rowland pleaded guilty to a single corruption count in exchange for a light sentence.
This time around, Rowland, a former captain of the wrestling team at Holy Cross High School, reportedly rejected a plea and vowed to go mano-a-mano with the federal prosecutor. Indeed, he and his high-priced Washington criminal defense attorney, Reid Weingarten, have said they are “eager to go to trial.”
This whole sordid affair is a mess on multiple levels. If Weingarten is wrong and a jury finds that Rowland did conspire to break the law, his client will be finished with no chance of revival. Even his knuckleheaded pastor, former co-host and now replacement, the Rev. Will Marotti, won’t be able to work his redemptive magic on Rowland. All this for a mere $35,000 phony consulting fee? Makes no sense.
In standing by Rowland for so long — even as evidence mounted that he used his radio show to benefit Wilson-Foley without disclosing to his listeners or telling his bosses — WTIC’s own standing is in tatters. Why would an erstwhile respectable radio station risk its own reputation just to keep a felonious ex-governor on the air for a few years of decent ratings? Again, makes no sense.
And the specter of Rowland could loom large over the 2014 gubernatorial contest. Imagine for a moment trying to run for the state’s highest office as a Republican and having to endure daily coverage of Rowland’s trial this fall. I can just hear state Democratic Chair Nancy DiNardo hammering away at Tom Foley or whoever the eventual nominee is, as she just did recently when potential presidential candidate Jeb Bush came to town. And mark my words: tart-tongued former Malloy henchman Roy Occhiogrosso will throw a few rockets as well.
But if state Republicans want to immunize themselves from Rowland’s stench, they’ll have to do a better job than they did at last Friday’s gubernatorial debate. Otherwise they could pay dearly for the sins of their political ancestor.
Contributing op-ed columnist Terry Cowgill lives in Lakeville, blogs at ctdevilsadvocate.com and is news editor of The Berkshire Record in Great Barrington, Mass. He has been a guest on Rowland’s show several times. Follow him on Twitter @terrycowgill.