HARTFORD, Conn. (AP) — Once a heavy hitter in Republican politics, first as a congressman and then as governor of Connecticut, John G. Rowland suffered the ultimate political defeat nearly a decade ago when he resigned from office amid a corruption scandal, eventually ordered to serve time in a federal prison.
After finishing his 10-month sentence, Rowland promised "to be a better person" and managed to piece together a new life as a popular AM radio commentator, taking calls from admirers who still referred to him as "Guv" while he also enjoyed taking jabs at the state's current governor, a Democrat. As an added bonus, the 56-year-old Rowland became eligible last year for an annual state pension of about $50,000.
But now, the once-popular Rowland finds himself again in the crosshairs of federal investigators, and those who stood by him last time are dumbfounded and frustrated.
A former Republican congressional candidate and her husband, Lisa Wilson-Foley and Brian Foley, pleaded guilty in federal court this week in an alleged scheme to set up a phony contract in 2011 to hide the consulting role Rowland played in the campaign. The seriousness of Rowland's situation sunk in Thursday when he announced, on air, that he was stepping down from his radio job to "take care of some personal issues."
"It seems very sad to me that obviously somebody who was given a second chance by many, many people would find himself in this horrible situation again," said Michael Jarjura, the former mayor of Rowland's hometown of Waterbury and someone who helped Rowland get a job as an economic development coordinator after he served his sentence.
"It's mindboggling," he added.
Prosecutors said the scheme involved a fictitious contract between Rowland and an attorney who worked for a nursing home company owned by Brian Foley, with Rowland providing nominal services to the nursing home company to create a cover.
Rowland was paid about $35,000 for services to the campaign, authorities said. The payments originated with Foley and constituted campaign contributions but were not reported to the Federal Election Commission, in violation of federal campaign finance laws, prosecutors said. Rowland has not been charged and said last week on his show that he would not be commenting on the developments, adding how he "respected the process." He has not responded to emailed requests for comment.
As former chairman of the national Republican Governors Association, a friend of former President George H. W. Bush and a politician once mentioned as a possible vice presidential candidate or Cabinet member, Rowland was a rising star in the GOP when he was in office from 1994 to 2004.
Like any successful politician, he drew people to him, and some who'd known him for decades still supported him 10 years ago, first as the corruption scandal engulfed him and then after he was released from the prison camp.
But now, Jarjura said, many in Rowland's hometown, especially those who publicly stood by him, appear less willing to have sympathy this time around.
"We took a lot of heat," Jarjura said. "For those of us who did (stand by him), it's disappointing and, to some degree, embarrassing."
Mike Doyle of New London, a friend of Rowland's for 30 years who served as an appointee in Rowland's administration, said he's still standing by him but acknowledged that others are not as understanding.
"I've had many, many friends from across the state say, 'Mike, what did he do now?'" Doyle said.
Doyle, who said he saw the former governor last weekend at a funeral, pointed to the popularity of Rowland's radio program as evidence that he has improved his reputation among voters.
"The people of this state were willing to forgive him," Doyle said. "Now, I don't know. I don't know what the answer is."
Eight years ago, in his first interview after being released from prison, sitting in the living room of a rented home in West Hartford, Rowland appeared chastened and subdued by his time in prison. Gone was the young, upstart politician who first became governor at 37, a man known for his charm, quick wit and the ability to have a nickname for just about everyone. Instead, he spoke to The Associated Press about having "blind faith" that God would decide his future, steering him down a different path.
"When you lose your freedom, it's a very humbling experience," he said. "It puts a different perspective on things. It puts a different perspective on your life and your future and how you look at things."
But as he got further away from his time in prison, the self-assured Rowland of the past returned, often launching one-liners and zingers at his critics while on air.
He also left a digital trail in the case against the Foleys, according to court papers outlining the charges against them. A co-conspirator identified in court as Rowland is quoted in emails.
It's surprising that anyone who gets caught up in such a corruption scandal doesn't realize that their life can be reassembled with emails and text messages, said Michael Lawlor, a former Democratic state representative who served on the committee that investigated whether to recommend Rowland's impeachment.
"One would think that," Lawlor said, "whatever your mentality is, whatever your moral compass is, you're going to get caught in this day and age."