A Look Back, And Up

The former Connecticut governor and ex-convict prays at a Hartford church, where he volunteers with parolees; below he's with running mate Jodi Rell on election night in 1994.
The former Connecticut governor and ex-convict prays at a Hartford church, where he volunteers with parolees; below he's with running mate Jodi Rell on election night in 1994. (By Helayne Seidman For The Washington Post)

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By Michael Leahy
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, June 17, 2007

HARTFORD, Conn.

On his way to delivering a talk, Johnny R pulls up in a dusty gray Chevy Blazer, accompanied by his dog.

"You bringing somebody with you to this thing?" someone asks.

"Nah." He bends to pet the dog. "I don't have any people," he says.

Before "the mess," as he calls it, he always had people. Before his resignation and imprisonment on a corruption charge, he always had an entourage of four when he went off to make a speech -- a press aide, an advance man, and a couple of state troopers whose presence, he knew, would heighten his aura. If the event was out of town, one of his people would have already done the hotel check-in so that after the speech, all Johnny R had to do was walk past the Average Joes and into a room with a view. At home in Hartford, he had a driver and a Lincoln Town Car, provided by the state of Connecticut.

He was the governor, and he was living large. Visiting the White House as an honored guest of George and Laura Bush, he slept in the Lincoln Bedroom. Observers talked about a possible Cabinet appointment. He played cards with Bush, who called him "Johnny R" -- which John Rowland loved for its coolness and the hint of a swagger.

The nickname seemed perfect for Rowland -- a fast-talking and even faster-moving shaker who had been elected as a moderate Republican to the Connecticut state legislature at 23; to Congress at 27; and then as Connecticut's youngest governor in history at 37, a political phenom who, in 2002, became the first governor of his state elected to a third term since the late 1700s. Infused with limitless confidence, he relished living on the edge of things, believing in the power of his impulses.

"What I wanted, I went after," he remembers. Just a year before becoming governor, in the midst of his troubled first marriage, he became reacquainted with a high school sweetheart. One night, while dancing together at a public event, he quietly suggested to her that they immediately tell their respective spouses that they wanted divorces so that they could be together. Soon they were married.

In his job, he denied himself virtually nothing. "I did some stupid things," he says now. "It started with my sense of entitlement, the belief that I deserved whatever came to me, that everything was about me."

Early in his third term, his troubles began. He accepted a $2,800 hot tub as a gift from an aide, then lied that he had purchased the tub on his own. He claimed he had taken out loans to pay for sprucing up his lakeside summer cottage, then was forced to admit that aides, acquaintances, and contractors doing business with the state had paid for kitchen renovations and a new heating system there. Over the years, he had taken whatever anyone wanted to give him -- cigars and champagne, clothes and a canoe. He vacationed rent-free at the resort homes of a construction contractor doing business with the state and accepted chartered trips to Las Vegas from him, then looked the other way as aides steered more business toward the man.

Stealthy malfeasance rotted his administration. His co-chief and deputy chief of staff, both destined for prison, took bribes of cash and gold coins; the deputy's booty was later found buried in his back yard. Connecticut reporters broke new stories of corruption; Democrats began talking impeachment. Old political friends began publicly distancing themselves. By the summer of that year, Rowland had lost the support of his Republican base in Connecticut and, finally, his job.

He had to break the news to his three children that their ordeal wasn't over. The feds charged Rowland with taking more than $100,000 in gifts from the construction contractor. Five months following his resignation, he pleaded guilty to one count of depriving the citizens of Connecticut of "the honest services of its governor."


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© 2007 The Washington Post Company

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