From his host chair at WTIC, John Rowland emailed Lisa Wislon-Foley’s campaign manager asking for the personal phone number of a political opponent — he told the campaign he would give the number out on the air.
That testimony came during Thursday proceedings of the former governor’s campaign corruption trial. Rowland is accused of working for Wilson-Foley’s 2012 congressional campaign while taking payments from her husband Brian Foley’s nursing home company.
Prosecutors contend those payments also bought the campaign an on-air attack dog in Rowland, who was the host of an afternoon political talk show on WTIC. In emails, Rowland coached the campaign on attacking candidate Andrew Roraback, then a state senator, for his opposition to the death penalty. The legislature was considering repealing the law that year.
Late in Rowland’s radio show on Feb. 23, 2012, the host emailed Chris Syrek, Wilson-Foley’s campaign manager. He was talking about the death penalty on the air and wanted Roraback’s personal phone number.
“Rohrback [sic] home phone number ? givuing [sic] out his and [Democratic Sen. Edith] Prague contact info,” Rowland emailed Syrek.
“Ha that’s awesome,” Syrek responded. “Want his cell?”
Rowland read the number on the air and asked listeners to call Roraback.
Syrek was the third campaign manager for Wilson-Foley to testify during the trial. All told the court they were uncomfortable with her arrangement with the former governor. One, Chris Covucci, said he began looking for a new job on his first day, when he learned of the nature of Rowland’s involvement.
On Thursday, Syrek said the campaign tried to hide Rowland’s involvement.
“It was important to keep Mr. Rowland’s role with the campaign quiet and keep him off the radar, if you will, to avoid any types of criticism, backlash, or distractions it might cause,” Syrek told the jury.
But behind the scenes, Rowland played a key role in crafting the campaign’s message. In early February 2012, Rowland emailed Syrek and former state Republican Party Chairman Chris Healy. He sent them a CTNewsJunkie article on lawmakers weighing a vote on the death penalty. “This is the whole primary,” he wrote in the email admitted as evidence.
The campaign decided that Roraback’s support of repealing the death penalty should be central to Wislon-Foley’s message. Rowland, Healy and other staffers began corresponding as they crafted a radio ad. At one point Healy wrote that a script he had written was “as solid a kick in the nuts as I have put together in a long while.”
In emails, Rowland kept pushing for Roraback’s office phone number to be given out during the commercial. When the radio spot ran later that month, a female narrator urged listeners to call Roraback and “urge him to keep families safe by supporting the death penalty.” Prosecutors played the ad for the jury in court Thursday.
The ad drew criticisms from Rowland’s WTIC colleague, Jim Vicevich, who has voiced opposition to the death penalty. Wilson-Foley emailed Rowland saying Vicevich was upset the ad implied death penalty opponents were “liberal.” Rowland said Vicevich was wrong on the death penalty issue.
“We knew there would be some moaners. There is a reason Republicans can’t win in this state . . . hang tough,” he wrote.
In court documents supporting Roraback’s eventual testimony before the court, prosecutors contend that Rowland also used his role as host of the WTIC radio show to “ambush” the former candidate during an on-air interview in December 2011.
“These circumstances strongly suggest and the jury could infer that the defendant’s conduct on [Dec.] 6, 2011 and during the subsequent on-air attack relating to the death penalty was not legitimate opinion broadcasting, but a political ambush paid for by Brian Foley,” prosecutors wrote.
In emails to Wilson-Foley, Rowland reminds the candidate that the attacks on Roraback’s death penalty position were his idea.
“I know, but we can’t give you credit,” she wrote back.