NEW HAVEN — (Updated 4:21 p.m.) The government’s key witness told the federal jury Monday that he tried his hardest to hide the true intent of former Gov. John G. Rowland’s involvement with his wife’s congressional campaign.
Brian Foley, who pleaded guilty in March to campaign finance violations, testified that after a meeting with the former governor in Sept. 2011, he brainstormed ways to get around reporting his involvement with the campaign to the Federal Elections Commission.
“We came to conclusion he could be very helpful with the campaign, but we were concerned about the negatives,” Foley testified in U.S. District Court on Monday.
After that first meeting, “I came up with the idea that if I was to hire Mr. Rowland for Apple he would then be supportive of the campaign and it would solve that problem,” Foley testified.
Apple Rehab is the name of the nursing home chain Foley owns. He testified that he tried to find a plausible reason to hire Rowland as a consultant.
Foley testified that his wife, Lisa Wilson-Foley, a first-time Republican candidate in the 5th Congressional District, went along with the idea. Foley said that after the first meeting, he recalled that he was on the couch in their home when he first mentioned to his wife to have Rowland call him to discuss the consulting contract further. He didn’t have Rowland’s phone number at the time, so he asked Wilson-Foley to have Rowland contact him.
Assistant U.S. Attorney Liam Brennan then presented another piece of evidence, an email from Rowland to Foley: “Had a brief chat with Lisa, I get it, let’s you and I meet.”
Asked by Brennan why they would not have wanted to disclose Rowland’s role with the campaign, Foley explained there were too many negatives associated with the former governor who was convicted in 2004 on corruption charges.
Foley said for two years he didn’t utter a word about the contract because, “I understood that to be a smoking gun.”
Instead, Foley devised a cover story.
“I figured if I hired him as a consultant for Apple it wouldn’t have to be disclosed with the Federal Elections Commission,” Foley said. And “he would be supportive of the campaign. That was a way not to have to report him to the Federal Elections Commission.”
When Foley and Rowland met for a second time at the Farmington Marriott in Sept. 2011 to discuss the contract, that’s when Foley pitched the consulting gig for his nursing home chain. It was at that meeting that Foley admitted he tried to “legitimize” the relationship by proposing the consulting gig.
“I was very careful never to use those words to acknowledge this was really for the campaign,” Foley said.
In order to further the legitimacy of that relationship, Foley said he ran it past two lawyers. It was decided the contract would need to be between his lawyer, Chris Shelton’s law firm, instead of the nursing home chain to put some distance between Rowland and the campaign.
“I was concerned that it might get it discovered that there was another motive here,” Foley said.
In order to make sure the contract wasn’t discovered Foley suggested it be done through Ridgeview Realty, which is a company that manages an apartment building in Cromwell.
Foley explained that since he did not take a tax deduction for owning the business “it was essentially my personal money I was paying Mr. Rowland.”
Rowland did do some work for the nursing home chain, including convening a meeting with former House Speaker Tom Ritter, who is now a lobbyist. Foley explained that he was looking for a new lobbyist with ties to the Democratic Party. The meeting lasted for an hour.
Rowland’s other duties for the nursing home chain involved quarterly reports. The amount of information in the January quarterly report was much shorter than the outline Rowland gave the Foley’s at his first meeting detailing the political consulting he would be willing to do for them.
Brennan asked if this upset Foley.
“No,” Foley replied. “Because Mr. Rowland was doing a lot of work for the campaign. The purpose of my intent was to pay him through the company, but have him work on the campaign.”
Foley said he valued Rowland’s political advice to his wife more than the advice of former Republican Chairman Chris Healy, who was hired as a political consultant by the Wilson-Foley campaign.
In April 2012 Foley feared his relationship with Rowland would be discovered when Kevin Rennie wrote an article about Rowland being a volunteer on the campaign.
“I got concerned of course, that if people were starting to snoop around that people could find out Mr. Rowland was being paid by Apple, but was working for the campaign,” Foley testified.
Healy, an unindicted co-conspirator, messaged Rowland after reading the article.
“Gov. we have to disclose the legal relationship between you and Apple as a subcontract, Brian, Syrek, LWF and I have talked and we need to chat but call Brian ASAP,” Healy told Rowland.
After that message, Wilson-Foley, Rowland, Chris Syrek, a campaign staff, Healy and Brian Bedard, the CEO of Apple Rehab, met at the campaign office in Avon.
Foley described the meeting as a “crisis” meeting to come up with a press release Apple could send out to continue to cover up the relationship..
“We were very concerned about the effects it would have on the campaign,” Foley said.
Foley, who pleaded guilty to campaign finance misdemeanors and faces up to one year in prison, was very involved in his wife’s campaign.
During Monday’s testimony, Foley admitted that he asked family members, including his sister, niece, and children to donate large sums of money to the campaign with the understanding he would reimburse them for their contributions.
Foley said he knew what he was doing was illegal.
Reid Weingarten, Rowland’s attorney got a brief half-hour to begin his cross-examination of Foley, and started with the straw donations.
“Did you know you were engaging in federal criminal wrongdoing when you did this?” Weingarten asked. “Yes,” Foley said.
“Did you knowingly put your sister and her daughter at risk?” Weingarten continued. ‘Yes,” Foley said.
Foley estimates he gave about $500,000 to his wife’s campaign and she contributed about the same amount to the campaign. A candidate can contribute unlimited amounts of money to their campaign so he funneled additional money to her. The two keep their assets independent of each other.
“I thought the risk was very little because there was never a quid pro quo,” Foley said.