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A Look Back, And Up
An Ex-Gov. and Ex-Con Reflects on Three Terms In Office and One in Jail

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."

"Gratuities were accepted as if they were his due," U.S. District Judge Peter Dorsey noted at Rowland's sentencing in March 2005. He went off to federal prison as inmate 15623-014, in Loretto, Pa. After serving 10 months, he got out last year and began his court-ordered community service, wondering what to do with the rest of his life. He has no illusions about his image nowadays. "I'm still radioactive in places," he says. He is a political pariah riding along in this dusty gray Chevy Blazer with his dog.

And that is how, at 50, Johnny R has come to have no people.

The Big House . . . the First One

At this moment he is giving you the Humiliation Tour. Driving slowly through Hartford's tony west end, he coasts to a momentary stop in front of a three-story mansion, fronted by forbidding gates. "990 Prospect Avenue," he says, pointing.

He lived here for all 10 years of his governorship. A 19-room Georgian Revival Colonial, the Connecticut governor's residence includes a library, a sunroom, nine fireplaces, nine bathrooms, and the inviting shaded terrace on the side of the mansion where he announced on live television his resignation.

"I was pretty composed," he remembers. "The tears had come before. . . . I was numb by then. What I remember is how surreal it felt. . . . I heard myself talking, but it was like I wasn't there. It's like you're hovering over your own body, like you're dead. It's like being at your own wake."

Except he wasn't being buried. China frequently executes crooked officials. In America, corrupt politicians do their time and keep living. Every so often, a once eminent officeholder like former California Republican congressman Randy "Duke" Cunningham heads off to prison, and another one, like Louisiana Democratic congressman William Jefferson, gets indicted on charges of bribe-taking. Rowland seemed destined to join that long line of august felons like Spiro Agnew who disappear from public sight after their disgrace, preferably to warm climes with an abundance of golf courses.

"Whatever the hell happened to that guy?" is the standard refrain of obituary readers at the end of such men's lives, proof of a bitter consolation: that they'd found the refuge of obscurity. But Rowland, who had children in Connecticut schools and few prospects outside his home state, was going nowhere.

"I couldn't do that -- I didn't want people to think that I was running away," he says. " . . . I'm not gonna hide my head in shame. Look, I knew a lot of good people were disappointed in me. I wanted to redeem myself. . . . I need contact -- it's that A-type thing, I guess. I'm the ultimate extrovert."

'My Arrogance Was Huge'

He estimates that half the time he works for free nowadays. A couple of days a week, he speaks to Connecticut parolees and addicts about how to look for jobs and get their lives back on track, a personal practice he took up while still behind bars. Sometimes he counsels people awaiting imprisonment for offenses like tax fraud and Wall Street illegalities, though, he adds, he gets a well-heeled drug offender now and then. "I try to assure them that they're going to be okay and safe; that I got through it and they'll get through it, too," he says. "A couple of years ago, somebody who'd been through it all talked to my wife and me before I went in. I'm just returning the favor."

But he needs to make money, too. That's not always so easy. He has traveled to Rhode Island to lecture high school athletes about the importance of ethics, and to North Carolina to speak to the John Locke Foundation about his own failings and what he calls the "culture of arrogance."

"It's all hand-to-mouth right now," he says. "I'm making about $60,000 a year. I don't need a lot -- I only want to pay my bills. I just talk to people -- companies, organizations, whoever wants me. I tell them what happened to me, and how they can best avoid those kinds of problems. People cheat on expense accounts or cheat on how their section of a company is performing. It's conscious avoidance, I call it -- which means people pretend not to notice."

He can guess what people will say when they hear all that.

" 'Jailhouse conversion," he says. ". . . 'Rowland is making money off his mistakes.' " He shrugs, reaching behind him to pet his dog. "People are gonna say what they want to say." He is driving past a lush park near the governor's residence where he used to take the dog on walks during the best days. He slows to stare at some trees. He absently fingers an empty case that once held a very nice Dominican handmade Romeo y Julieta cigar, a reminder of the old days.

"I'm past having those moments when I think a lot about what I lost," he says. "I don't care anymore about the loss. I think the best thing that ever happened to me was going to prison. My arrogance was huge. I don't want people making the same mistakes I did."

He's coy about some of the mistakes. He says he never knew much about the free work done by the construction contractor and others at his vacation home until it had been completed ("I didn't know exactly what people were doing."). He insists that he never viewed the goodies he unlawfully accepted as payoffs; "there was never any quid pro quo."

His critics see his admissions as a half-confession at best. Still, seldom has a disgraced politician opened a window so far onto his motives and the circumstances behind his misdeeds.

'A Sense of Entitlement'

During a weekday evening in Hartford, he is drinking a brandy in a hotel restaurant when he says, "Everyone was always blowing smoke at me and I wanted to believe it." He has donned one of his natty dark blue suits from the good days, having just come from a banquet for a women's group. His crisp white shirt has a monogrammed R on the breast pocket. He is musing about the culture of graft.

"From the time you arrive, the job of everybody in the office is about making you look good and feel good, and after a while you believe that is the way your life is supposed to be -- people doing things for you. The sun is rising with you -- that's what everybody believes. You end up believing it, too. The people in your office and the lobbyists, they're all saying the same thing: how great you are, and how hard you work for the state, and how much everybody appreciates you, and how you deserve to be rewarded. It starts there."

He motions for another brandy. "Somewhere around then is when the sense of entitlement takes over. People wanted to give me things, make my life easier, allow me to relax. A night on vacation for $100 less at somebody's house who had a contract [with the state]? It never crossed my mind to worry about that, the ethics of it, the wisdom. I told myself, 'I've earned it. I work hard. I'm often away working, my kids suffer, and I only make $78,000.' At the time I was paying about -- whatever it was -- close to $45,000 in child support to my ex, which left only 33 [thousand] for me before taxes or whatever it was. I was living on 15 to 20 grand [a year].

" . . . A lot of people in state government made more than me most of the time. My chief of staff made $125,000 or something like that. I think my press secretary made a buck ten. You begin thinking, 'I'm making nothing compared to a lot of other people, and I'm working all the time.' . . . My sense of entitlement was the evil -- the feeling that everybody owes you. After a while the favors took on a life of their own. . . . You're just doing your job and more people are telling you that you're great and wanting to help you in any way. And you have financial people telling you that one day you're going to be president, that there's no stopping you."

By his second term, his star was soaring. In an irony, he resisted efforts to raise his salary at the time to $150,000, worried about political fallout (the raise would take effect only during his final term). His state's budget surplus was so large that taxpayers got rebate checks. School test scores showed marked gains.

On the night that he stayed with his wife, Patty, in the Lincoln Bedroom, he couldn't fall asleep right away. "I was just looking around the room," he says. "There's a copy of the Emancipation Proclamation under glass, and it's, like, 11 feet from the bed. And you're just lying there and thinking, 'I'm really here.' Seems a little unreal. You're thinking a little about the future. I'd never really thought of running of president. But you're in that room and you're thinking, 'Yeah, I could do this. I could be president.' "

He chuckles wanly.

"And then a couple of years later or whatever, I'm lining up for toilet paper in prison."

The Weight That's Been Lifted

Incarceration for Rowland was at Loretto's so-called prison camp -- which has no gates, no bars, no locks, no guards within sight. "There's no such thing as 'easy time' -- it's still humiliating," he says. "You get strip-searched when you get there. You're stripped in every way. You've lost your freedom, your family, everything."

He lived in a barracks-like setting with other inmates, many of whom were convicted drug dealers who'd already done time in tough prisons and now at the camp were counting down the months until their release. Each morning, Rowland swept and mopped floors. He prayed, read the Bible and decided to build up his body. He found an inmate offering his services as a personal trainer, a towering former drug dealer nicknamed Six-Nine, who presided over Rowland's weight workouts in exchange for two mackerel a session -- the fish, stored in sealed packets, serving as the basic currency of the camp.

"People wanted the mack for the protein in it," Rowland remembers. "Six-Nine had to have his mack. I was giving him six mack a week. We got to be good friends."

Six-Nine, whose name is Charles Cook, is out of Loretto now, too. Readjusting to freedom after 16 years on the inside, Cook, 40, is trying to become a fitness trainer in the Pittsburgh area, a bit discouraged by the early reaction of potential employers.

"It's hard to get some people even to give me a look," he says. He had called Rowland, asking for advice. "John told me he'll come down here, put on his best governor's suit and go with me to places and talk to the people who do the hiring," Cook says. "He says he'll campaign for me. . . . It helps your faith in things when an important man like that wants to help you -- especially after what John has been through."

Rowland mutters that it's no big deal what he's been through.

"No one should feel sorry for me," he says. "I had everything. What I did I brought on myself."

His wife, Patty, finds the subject too painful to discuss.

Will Marotti, a Connecticut minister who was Rowland's spiritual adviser during the corruption scandal, bluntly observes that Rowland benefited from his prison stint. "I'm liking the John Rowland I know much more now," says Marotti. " . . . What happened to him was a necessary process to have the arrogance expunged. He's more humble today and more in touch with the weaknesses of John Rowland."

"I'm more at peace now than I ever was in politics," Rowland says. "I don't care about any of the things I lost, the house, the yes-men."

Talking Points That Ring True

Driving into Hartford's needy north end, Rowland pulls into the parking lot of the Glory Chapel, where he generally volunteers one or two days a week, teaching job interview skills, résumé writing and public speaking to a class of about 25 recovering drug addicts, most of whom have been in jail. He started working here a year ago as a condition of his parole, and when his stint ended he just kept coming.

"Hey, Joseph," he calls out to a man who has just come from meeting with his parole officer. "You're giving your four-minute speech today, right?"

Joseph doesn't say anything.

"Yeah, you'll do your four minutes," Rowland says. "It's not so scary. You'll get up and in four minutes, you'll own everybody. You've handled tougher things."

Joseph shrugs. "I guess. I've been in worse places."

Rowland chuckles. "Amen."

He makes notes as Joseph delivers the story of his adult life in four minutes. "I came to this program three times and I fell on my face three times. . . . I give urine every Wednesday," he says, then concludes with a warning for his classmates: "If you work around alcohol, you will be back."

Rowland applauds along with everyone else. "Joseph, you were locked and loaded," he says, and proceeds to identify the moral lesson for the class. "You're not a failure if you fall down; you're a failure if you don't get back up. Thank you, Joseph."

Robyn Inglese looks on. "It has to be somebody like him who does this," says Inglese, a former crack addict and now a counselor here. "How is someone with a squeaky-clean life going to be able to understand people who've had problems? He knows he made a mistake. He took liberties in a gray area and he paid for it. He talked about it to us. For a moment, he got choked up."

Rowland says he feels happiest about his quiet achievements nowadays, like recently helping a parolee and former addict find his first job ever -- driving a forklift for $10 an hour. He guesses that he has found jobs for five parolees. "What I'm doing now is more meaningful to me than anything I ever did as governor," he says.

Johnny R, Trying to B Goode

After the class, he is driving around with his dog and musing about the possibility of a nice walk later for the two of them. He cruises past the governor's residence again. Its occupant nowadays is M. Jodi Rell, who served under Rowland for 10 years as lieutenant governor.

"She threw me under the bus when it got rough -- Jodi acted like we weren't even friends," he says. Then, hearing himself, he adds: "But that's politics. . . . It's about survival. . . . It's the place for the ego-driven, and that was me. . . . I still have to watch it. You know, I get some applause and I start to get those old feelings. I have to watch out for that arrogance. You're always in recovery."

Now and then he leans over his shoulder toward the back seat and glances at Colby, his 7-year-old black Labrador. Colby impassively looks back, a well-trained political dog who learned during the glory days to stay perfectly silent in the presence of strangers hanging with his master. If you have a pen in your hand, Colby just keeps looking you over, in the manner of a wary attendant.

"How you doing back there, Colby?" Rowland asks at a stop.

Colby looks up at him, then back at you.

"Colby's loyal -- Colby rides with me every day," Rowland says. "Or almost every day. If I haven't taken him somewhere, Colby is wild when I get home. He can be doing something and then I walk in and he just completely forgets whatever it was that he was doing. What's that called?"

Attention deficit?

He snorts. "No, that's me -- attention deficit. No, Colby has whaddyacallit -- oh, separation anxiety."

He shrugs at the dog. "He's my people now. That's it. Just Colby."

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