NEW HAVEN — During the first day of former Gov. John G. Rowland’s criminal trial, his lawyer told jurors the case would contain plenty of distasteful politics, but no evidence of criminal wrongdoing by the man forced out of office a decade ago.
Rowland, who resigned in 2004 before serving a 10-month bid in federal prison on corruption charges, appeared in court Wednesday. He’s now facing charges he arranged to do political work for two congressional campaigns while conspiring to keep his pay hidden from election regulators.
Prosecutors laid out a snapshot of their case in their opening statement. They showed jurors emails from Rowland promising a political victory to Mark Greenberg, a longshot candidate in 2009. “I can get you elected if you are interested,” Rowland wrote.
Greenberg, who took the stand later Wednesday afternoon, eventually rebuffed a contract to pay Rowland $35,000 a month — money he says Rowland insisted come from outside the campaign. During the next election cycle, feds say he took his proposal to candidate Lisa Wilson-Foley and her wealthy husband, Brian Foley.
“I hope you ask yourself — what was John Rowland selling? What was he offering to do for Mark Greenberg and Lisa Wilson-Foley?” U.S. Attorney Liam Brennan said to the jury.
Rowland’s attorney, Reid Weingarten, gave a folksy opening statement to the jury. “I’ve got no Power Point. I’m old school,” he told them. “I just want to talk to you a bit.” He presented the former governor as a man humbled by his prior conviction and looking to support his family. Rowland wanted to work in politics and “maybe redeem himself, just a little” by helping Republican candidates, his lawyer said.
“You’re going to see some politics here. You’re going to see how the sausage is made, how politicians treat each other,” he said. “You may say, ‘Yuck.” But I know you won’t hold that against John.”
Weingarten suggested it was Brian Foley, whom he referred to as “hubby,” who offered Rowland up to federal prosecutors when he was facing serious charges of his own. The Foleys have pleaded guilty to related charges and Brian Foley is expected to be the government’s key cooperating witness.
Weingarten told the jury that Foley turned on Rowland in a “staggeringly cynical 180.”
“What does he do? Maybe we can find a big fish, a Page One guy. How about a controversial ex-governor like John Rowland?” he said.
By working to undermine Foley’s eventual testimony, Rowland’s lawyers are capitalizing on a last-minute ruling by Judge Janet Bond Arterton. The judge has permitted the defense team to use emails that prosecutors accidentally sent to Rowland’s attorneys. The emails include early communications between Foley and his lawyer. At that time, Foley was defending his contract with Rowland as legitimate.
Weingarten contends that the contract was always legitimate. The document suggest that Rowland was working as a consultant for a nursing home company owned by Brian Foley. At the time, the company was engaged in a labor dispute with a health care workers union. Rowland clashed with the same union during his tenure as governor.
“Who would know better than John Rowland?” he asked the jury. “He earned every penny of that money.”
By contrast, Weingarten insisted the former governor’s work on behalf of Lisa Wilson-Foley’s campaign was a volunteer effort or a “labor of love.”
Prosecutors objected to Weingarten’s opening statement to the jury. Arterton allowed the opening statements on the condition they not be argumentative.
“Mr. Weingarten’s opening was, in our view, replete with arguments,” U.S. Attorney Chris Mattei told the judge. “I’ve never heard anything like it.”
Much of Wednesday’s proceedings involved testimony from Greenberg, who was the government’s first witness. Rowland offered Greenberg a contract purporting to do work for one of his real estate businesses or for his non-profit animal rescue operation. But Greenberg told the court that it was always clear Rowland intended to do campaign work.
“The purpose was political consultancy, plain and simple,” Greenberg said. “. . . That was completely unacceptable. I wouldn’t have paid him from anything but the campaign.”
Greenberg, who is running for Congress again this year, said he ultimately passed on Rowland’s offer. Although he said he liked Rowland, it would have sent the wrong message to have a man convicted of felony corruption charges working on his staff.
But Rowland was persistent. Throughout the 2010 election cycle, he emailed Greenberg and communicated with his campaign staff. Greenberg said he avoided rejecting Rowland’s offer in person.
“It was difficult for me to tell him ‘No’ on my own,” he said. “I tried to have the other guys do it.”
Eventually they did. Greenberg lost the Republican nomination that year, but quickly made it clear he intended to run again in 2012.
Lisa Wilson-Foley made her unsuccessful run in 2012 as well. Greenberg said he followed news reports indicating Rowland was helping out with her campaign. Later, there were reports that Rowland had been paid for consulting work by a lawyer for the candidate’s husband.
“My reaction was . . . ‘It’s like Deja Vu all over again,’” Greenberg told the court.
The trial is expected to last several weeks.