Courtesy of LinkedIn
Chris Syrek (Courtesy of LinkedIn)

Lisa Wilson-Foley’s campaign manager told a jury Thursday that a call from a reporter confirmed his suspicions about the existence an arrangement to pay former governor John Rowland off the campaign’s books.

Former campaign manager Chris Syrek said it was not until that call from a journalist that Wilson-Foley’s 2012 congressional campaign began crafting an explanation for the total of $35,000 Rowland had been paid through Apple Rehab, a nursing home company owned by the candidate’s husband Brian Foley.

The call came from New Haven Register reporter Jordan Fenster in April 2012. He was asking about Rowland, whose involvement the campaign had tried to keep quiet. Fenster was also asking whether Rowland had been paid by any company owned by the candidate or her husband.

Syrek said he told Fenster he didn’t know, then hung up and called Wilson-Foley.

“You’ll have to talk to Brian,” Syrek said Wilson-Foley twice told him. So he called Brian Foley, who acknowledged there was a “professional relationship” between Apple Rehab and Rowland.

Hugh McQuaid photo
Chris Syrek looks the other way as he’s leaving court (Hugh McQuaid photo)

“I was incredibly distressed. The suspicions I had were essentially confirmed for the first time. I was seriously concerned what our response would be as a campaign,” Syrek said.

Foley has testified that he hired Rowland as a consultant to his nursing home company “primarily” as a benefit to his wife’s campaign. The hope was to avoid publicly disclosing the involvement of the former governor, who spent 10 months in federal prison on corruption charges after resigning office in 2004. Rowland’s past was seen as a “negative” for the campaign.

“I figured if I hired him as a consultant for Apple it wouldn’t have to be disclosed with the Federal Elections Commission” and “he would be supportive of the campaign,” Foley, who has pleaded guilty to related charges, told the court Monday.

The arrangement now has Rowland again facing corruption charges.

Rowland’s attorney contends that the former governor did legitimate work for Foley’s rehab company and volunteered his services to Wilson-Foley’s campaign as a “labor of love.” The argument is similar to the explanation Syrek said the campaign devised after Fenster began asking questions about Rowland.

The campaign’s talking points downplayed Rowland’s involvement and said “he volunteered freely on his own time.” Syrek said it was an effort to avoid damage to the campaign. But the issue continued to dog them.

“We started to receive questions from delegates, local officials, and supporters. There were subsequent follow up stories,” Syrek said. “A few days later a candidate in the race came out and took a pretty good shot at us.”

That candidate was Mike Clark, a Farmington Republican and retired FBI agent who helped with the investigation that sent Rowland to prison in 2004. Clark eventually filed a formal complaint with the Federal Elections Commission based on Rowland’s payments from Apple. Clark is expected to take the stand before the end of the trial.

Lauren Casper, another staffer, testified that her phone began lighting up with news alerts.

“I was receiving tons of Google alerts about John Rowland’s involvement on our campaign and that there was an investigation—that Mike Clark had an investigation,” Casper said. The mood at campaign headquarters became “stressful and uncomfortable.”

The press coverage also prompted an admission by another candidate, Mark Greenberg, who said Rowland had unsuccessfully pitched a similar arrangement to him during his 2010 congressional campaign. Greenberg was the government’s first witness when the trial began last week.

Prosecutors asked Syrek if he considered leaving the campaign after the Rowland arrangement came to light.

“I thought about it,” he said. “I stayed for a lot of different reasons. I’m by no means independently wealthy person. I need to work for a living and can’t afford to be unemployed. I don’t consider myself person who runs away at the first sign of trouble, I think I’m a little tougher than that.”