NEW HAVEN — Former Gov. John G. Rowland responded with a strange outburst during a meeting in 2009 when staffers for Mark Greenberg’s congressional campaign rejected his consulting proposal, the staffers testified Thursday.
Greenberg’s former campaign manager, Marc Katz, and consultant, Sam Fischer, detailed the meeting during the second day of Rowland’s campaign corruption trial in a federal courthouse in New Haven.
“I just remember shaking his hand and thinking that was the weirdest meeting I had ever been to,” Fischer said told the court.
During his testimony, Fischer brought up a detail about the meeting that prompted sharp questions by Rowland’s lead attorney, Reid Weingarten. Fischer said Rowland kept “sniffing” in a way that stuck him as odd.
“He must of had a chronic nasal condition . . . When he went to make a point he sniffed constantly. I don’t know how else to describe it,” he said.
Weingarten did not like the implication.
“You weren’t suggesting Mr. Rowland was on drugs?” Weingarten asked during a cross examination. “Is that what you were intending to imply? That we have a cokehead here? Is that what you’re saying?”
Fischer looked at Weingarten but did not answer the question. Prosecutors quickly objected to the question and Weingarten moved on.
The meeting had been prompted by Greenberg, who told the court that Rowland had aggressively pursued a lucrative consulting contract with his first unsuccessful campaign. Katz and Fischer said Thursday on the stand that they had wanted nothing to do with Rowland’s proposal.
Their reasons were twofold: Rowland was insisting his campaign work be compensated by another entity, a maneuver that would hide his pay from election regulators. And Rowland had already served prison time in 2004 for corruption.
Greenberg agreed, but found it difficult to reject the former governor in person. “I was effectively gutless,” he told the court Thursday.
So it fell to Katz to put the idea to rest during a face-to-face meeting with Rowland in December 2009. Fischer attended the meeting as well.
Katz said he was nervous. Like Greenberg, he had been successful in the real estate business but he was a political novice. Greenberg “was really setting me up as the bad guy, the guy to say ‘no, it’s not going to happen” to Rowland, Katz said.
Both Katz and Fischer said the former governor arrived with an air of confidence that suggested he thought the consulting job was his. The three men made some small talk in a conference room inside Greenberg’s campaign headquarters.
“It was a dance,” Katz said. “Nice, nice, nice, nice, but clearly I was there, knowing I didn’t want his involvement in the campaign.”
Eventually Katz “took a deep breath” and brought up the “800 pound elephant” in the room — he told Rowland he had too much baggage to work on their campaign.
“It was as if I’d lit a match,” Katz said. “He got up, his arms got much more demonstrative.”
“His demeanor became defensive — extremely defensive,” Fischer said in separate testimony. “The tenor of the meeting went from pleasant to not-so-pleasant.”
Both men said Rowland got up from the table and demanded a piece of paper and a pen. He drew a map of Connecticut and marked Hartford and the 5th Congressional District. The former governor pointed to where he said the readers of the Hartford Courant were located.
“The media, they’re out to get him but everyone else in this district loves me,” Fischer recounted Rowland saying. “The voters don’t feel the way the media in Hartford does.”
Katz said Rowland told him his enemies were in Hartford, but he was still well-loved around the rest of the state.
“My head was spinning at that point,” Katz said. “I’d clearly lit something.”
When the meeting concluded, the three men shook hands and Rowland left the campaign headquarters.
Prosecutors asked Katz whether he felt he had played “the bad guy” for Greenberg.
“Yup,” he answered. He said the meeting “was more than strange to me. It didn’t help my nerves, but it certainly cemented my feelings” on a contract with Rowland.
Fischer did not take questions from reporters outside court.