The mercury hovered just above freezing in Connecticut for much of March 2000 -- a fine time to fly away to the sun-kissed Kohala Coast of the island of Hawaii, for a week at the spectacular oceanfront Mauna Kea Resort.

It was a dream vacation for Gov. John G. Rowland and his wife, Patricia, in a house that would rent for thousands of dollars a week. But their accommodations didn't cost them a dime -- another case of friends and supporters picking up the Rowlands' tab.

Unlike some of the other freebies that Rowland and his wife have enjoyed, no part of the Hawaii getaway appears to have come via the courtesy of any state contractors -- the kind of free benefits that have thrown the governor into political and legal jeopardy.

Despite the absence of a contractor connection, however, the Hawaii story illustrates a significant pattern of behavior by the governor: While drawing a middle-class paycheck for most of his years as governor, his lifestyle has been studded with the trappings of affluence -- often through the kindness of others.

And it again raises what many view as a threshold ethics issue: Did Rowland receive special benefits simply by virtue of holding office?

Rowland stands at the brink of impeachment and at the bull's-eye of a federal corruption investigation that someday could lead to his indictment, largely because of a taste for first-class living.

His state salary for most of his time in office -- $78,000, depleted by thousands in annual payments to his former wife -- would seem inadequate for the manner in which the first couple and their five children have lived. There have been the vacations in Hawaii, Florida and Vermont; the Litchfield lakeside cottage they bought and improved to the tune of tens of thousands of dollars; bins of wine at fine restaurants; pricey suits from the capital city's finest haberdashery.

For all the taxpayer-supported perquisites he enjoys as governor -- among them lodging at the Executive Residence in Hartford, a car and driver and, since last year, a newly increased salary of $150,000 -- Rowland has consistently shown an enthusiasm for more.

Turning Down A Raise

In 1998, the year he first ran for re-election, Rowland made political hay by pointedly and publicly refusing to support a gubernatorial pay raise that legislators were ready to approve, effective in 1999.

At the time, many wondered how he could afford to decline the money. But recent revelations show that even then, he had established the pattern of enhancing his lifestyle by accepting favors and gifts. Over the years his benefactors have included friends, political supporters, staff subordinates and, perhaps most troublesome, businessmen who received lucrative state contracts from his administration -- such as the Tomasso family of New Britain.

Some people -- even some who condemn Rowland for taking favors from such contractors as the Tomassos -- believe a governor is free to accept any number of favors from people without any business ties to the state. Rowland's legal counsel, Ross Garber, says Rowland can even take gifts from state contractors, as long as the contractors do not deal directly with the governor's office.

Garber said the governor would have no comment on this story -- but by the counsel's logic, it is perfectly fine that in late March of 2000, the first couple paid nothing for their stay in the Mauna Kea resort house of retired advertising executive Barry Blau of Westport.

Blau -- who was not at Mauna Kea at the time his vacation home was used by the Rowlands, and, apparently, a friend of theirs -- is a Republican political donor who met Rowland through his gubernatorial campaign. Blau and his family spent $7,000 to stage a Rowland fund-raising event in 1994 and contributed $3,000 to his 1998 re-election effort, records show.

Rowland has repeatedly insisted that no one who did him favors got anything in return. But that may not absolve him of legal problems. A key question about the Hawaii accommodations -- and about anything else Rowland has taken from people, whether or not they do business with the state -- may be: How far can an officeholder go in accepting things from friends or associates without crossing the ethical line into impropriety?

One of the keys to the answer appears to be whether a gift comes from a newfound political friend or an old personal one.

The State Ethics Commission's executive director, Alan S. Plofsky, said last month that it is illegal in Connecticut for a public official to accept an expensive gift that he receives by virtue of the office he holds. One test of that is whether the giver has presented him with such gifts prior to his taking office, Plofsky said.

By that test, it appears that Rowland may have violated state law even by accepting expensive benefits from people such as Blau who do no business with the state -- because Blau is a newfound friend who met Rowland in the context of his role as candidate and then governor.

Similar questions apply to many of the favors and gifts Rowland has received. Were he not governor, would construction executive William Tomasso have sent a crew to work on his summer cottage for free? Would other major contractors have let bills for work they did go unpaid for years? Would he even have been offered the chance to buy the cottage -- one of a handful available on hundreds of acres of private conservation land -- in the first place?