NEW HAVEN — The people running Mark Greenberg's 2010 congressional campaign — including the candidate himself — believed that there were big problems with the extravagant consulting deal that John Rowland had proposed to them: It cost too much, it sent the wrong political message and, when they finally gathered up the courage to say no to an ex-governor, he wouldn't accept the answer.
"I expressed my adamant opposition to the proposal for a couple of reasons," Greenberg political consultant Sam Fischer testified Thursday at Rowland's campaign fraud trial. "One, from a political standpoint, it didn't make any sense to me. And two, it was illegal."
U.S. District Judge Janet B. Arterton struck the characterization after an objection by Rowland's attorneys. The contract is one of two at the center of the case against Rowland.
When federal prosecutor Liam Brennan recast the question, Fischer reconsidered and answered that it would have been politically unwise and "problematic" for the Greenberg campaign to agree to Rowland's terms — that the campaign hire him as a political consultant but disguise his role as an adviser to Greenberg's private real estate interests.
In addition, Rowland wanted Greenberg to pay him $790,000 over 26 months.
After dropping a series of apparently too subtle hints to Rowland that the contract wouldn't be signed, Greenberg decided to have his staff deliver a more definitive rejection during a meeting at campaign headquarters in Southbury just before Christmas in 2009. Rowland, Fischer said, did not react well.
"I just remember shaking his hand thinking that was the weirdest meeting I've ever been to," Fischer testified.
Rowland, a three-term governor who was forced from office because of a bribery conviction a decade ago, is on trial now on charges of violating federal campaign reporting laws by using sham contracts twice in efforts to conceal paid consulting work for congressional campaigns — Greenberg's in 2010 and that of Lisa Wilson-Foley in 2012.
Congress enacted laws requiring the public disclosure of spending by political candidates so that voters can determine where their financial support comes from. Failure to report to the Federal Election Commission can be a crime. Rowland is being tried for conspiring in both elections to conceal spending from the commission.
Greenberg was the government's first witness against Rowland and, before he was excused Thursday, he described his shock when he read Rowland's proposal and learned that it held him responsible for 90 percent of the $790,000 contract cost if he abrogated the agreement before its term expired.
"I thought the number was so beyond absurd that I ripped it up and that was that," Greenberg testified Thursday morning.
Fischer testified that Greenberg hired his Omaha, Neb., political consulting firm for the 2010 5th District congressional race at about the time that Greenberg said Rowland was pressing him to sign. Greenberg campaign manager Mark Katz, a political novice and Greenberg real estate partner, also testified about the contract for the prosecution Thursday.
Greenberg said that Rowland had been pitching the contract since the summer of 2009 and delivered a document to Greenberg in the fall of 2009, as the two toured a shelter that Greenberg and his wife were building in Bloomfield for stray dogs and cats. Greenberg and his two top campaign strategists described the contract as puzzling.
Greenberg testified that Rowland insisted that his political role be concealed and that the contract be written in a way that indicated he was providing Greenberg with business and charitable advice and was paid through the Simon Foundation, the animal shelter. Greenberg speculated from the witness stand Thursday that he now believes that Rowland considered his campaign doomed and didn't want to be publicly identified with a losing effort.
Greenberg described the document as "a cut and paste job;" he said he believes that part of another contract, apparently an agreement with a software company, had been pasted, inadvertently, onto the final page. Fischer called the document "cartoonish."
Greenberg testified that he never would have agreed to conceal Rowland's salary and that he and his advisers decided to reject the offer, among other reasons, because they believed that Rowland had become politically "toxic" as a result of his 2004 conviction on corruption-related charges.
"From the onset I didn't think Mr. Rowland's participation in the campaign was the right image he wanted to send," Katz testified about Greenberg's thinking. "I didn't think bringing in the ultimate insider who had a history of corruption was the image he wanted to present. ... And it didn't smell right to say he would be working somewhere else in our universe when it was only going to be about politics."
The problem was how to give Rowland the brush-off. All three were in some way awed by Rowland's former political stature.
Katz confessed to being "a little starstruck."
Greenberg said in an email to his advisers that he didn't want to be the one to tell Rowland. He said he had become friendly with the former governor and even offered Rowland the use of a private plane he had in 2009 — an offer for which Rowland showed gratitude.
"I need your plane," Rowland wrote in an email to Greenberg that the prosecution introduced as evidence Thursday.
The Greenberg campaign decided to deliver the news to Rowland during a meeting at headquarters in mid-December 2009.
"My goal was to hear Mr. Rowland out and ultimately not accept his proposal," Fischer said." My understanding was that this was really a courtesy meeting for the governor out of his position. Just simply because this was a former governor. We were going to hear him out, but in my mind we were never going to continue on with this arrangement."
"When the meeting started, I would describe it as pleasant," Fischer said. "Gov. Rowland went into some of the dynamics of the campaign, his perception of the campaign and what we needed to do. He kind of gave his pitch, if you will."
Fischer testified that Rowland implied that Greenberg couldn't win without him.
"He came across as a panacea, a cure-all."
It fell on Katz to deliver the bad news.
"Ultimately, I didn't quite know what to do, but there was the 800-pound gorilla sitting in the room there," Katz testified. "Finally, I just took a deep breath and I said, 'With all due respect, how about the baggage you bring?'"
"And it was as if I had lit a match," Katz said.
"He had been dancing with Mark [Greenberg] for weeks and Mark just didn't have the oomph to say no. And now we were in this room for this to happen."
Rowland became "very defensive," Fischer said, and the tenor of the meeting "became not very pleasant."
Katz said that Rowland stood — they had been seated around a conference table — and called for paper and pencil. He drew a rough sketch of Connecticut. Fischer said the map was supposed to represent how Connecticut's media markets affected the 5th District.
"He said, 'Here's Hartford and Hartford Courant readers and these people don't like me,'" Katz testified.
Fischer testified that Rowland "said the media in Hartford are out to get him, but everywhere else in the district they loved him. He said the voters don't feel the way the media in Hartford feels."
Tension in the meeting room soon died down and the meeting broke up.
Rowland apparently was not prepared to lay the contract proposal entirely to rest. Federal prosecutors introduced as evidence an email written within days by Rowland to Greenberg's pollster.
"I have talked with Greenberg about helping him," Rowland wrote. "His little non political friends tell him I would hurt him. Maybe in the Hartford Courant readership but I don't think in the 5th."