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.
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?
Democratic lawmakers have asked Plofsky's agency for an opinion on that very issue, and the ethics commission is scheduled to consider the matter Friday.
The law cited by Plofsky is not a criminal statute, but Rowland has learned the hard way that state ethics laws have some teeth: He paid a fine and restitution totaling nearly $9,000 to settle an ethics commission complaint about his acceptance of cut-rate or free vacation accommodations.
Quid Pro Quo?
On the criminal side of the law, federal prosecutors and the FBI are accelerating their search for evidence linking state contracts to favors to the governor, including vacation stays and work they provided on the Rowlands' Litchfield cottage. These would be the classic quid pro quos that have led to indictments in political corruption cases here and elsewhere.
Although the Tomassos are Rowland's friends and have received more than $100 million in no-bid contracts from his administration, the governor insists that neither they nor anyone else who has provided him with favors ever received any state benefit in return.
Nonetheless, they enabled Rowland to enjoy the perquisites of a lifestyle unavailable to most people. Some examples:
The Hawaii trip.
``It's not just a vacation. It's the rest of your life,'' goes the advertising slogan of the Mauna Kea Resort, which includes a hotel, a golf course designed by famed architect Robert Trent Jones and ``villas'' that rent for $1,100 to $1,400 a night. Condominium rentals cost about $550 a night there. Blau said he has a house, but declined to estimate the value of staying there for ``about a week'' -- as he said the Rowlands and ``a couple of others'' did in late March 2000.
As to the ``couple of others,'' sources have said that the Rowlands were accompanied to Hawaii by Michael and Mary Falvey of Narragansett, R.I., and that they took care of the Rowlands' airfare. When told Friday that sources say she and her husband went on the Hawaii trip, Mary Falvey said, ``That is a private matter and no business of the press.'' Then she hung up. Her husband, the owner of an insurance company, did not return a message inquiring about the trip and airfare.
Rowland, through Garber, would not respond to those questions. Rowland was actually interviewed by phone while he was in Hawaii in March 2000 by a Courant reporter about an unrelated story. His staff has never been willing since then to talk about the vacation arrangements.
Wine bins at local restaurants.
Rowland has at least two ``wine lockers'' at Carmen Anthony restaurants, one in Wethersfield and one in Waterbury, but would not respond to questions about who pays for the bottles of wine placed in them for consumption by him and his friends.
The brass plaque bearing Rowland's name at the Wethersfield restaurant is on the bin next to that of P.J. Delahunty, a top Rowland appointee at the state Department of Public Works. DPW, along with Rowland himself, is a central focus of a federal investigation, more a than year long, into bribery and bid-rigging in lucrative state contracts. Delahunty's private construction company helped renovate Rowland's Litchfield cottage for free.
There is no charge for a wine locker at Carmen Anthony, but a locker holder must purchase 12 bottles of wine from the restaurant initially and always keep at least six bottles on hand -- always purchased from the restaurant, at a 20 percent discount. The extensive wine list ranges from a $20 bottle of vintage 2000 Cote du Rhone to a $245 bottle of Opus One Napa 1996.
Repeated calls to restaurant owner Carmen Vacalebre, an active Republican from Rowland's native Waterbury, were not returned.
Gift certificates to Stackpole.
Sources say that Rowland, since he has become governor, has worn at least one suit and other clothing from Stackpole, Moore & Tryon, Hartford's pricey and best-known haberdashery. During a recent private session with state legislators, Rowland was asked about rumors concerning his acquisitions from the store -- and the topic of whether he received gift certificates came up. Sources said he did not deny it in the meeting, but also did not explain who he got them from.
Rowland's office would not comment when asked for details that might clear up murky circumstances. When Stackpole's owner, Cynthia Gardner Lemery, was asked about Rowland's dealings with the store, she hung up on a Courant reporter.
A Florida stay.
Rowland's biggest defender among local radio talk hosts, Brad Davis of WDRC-AM (1360), confirmed Saturday that the governor and first lady were his guests once during the past several years at the Miami Beach condominium that Davis owns with his wife.
``They were there once ... like a Wednesday to a Sunday,'' Davis said. ``But, I mean, they're friends of mine. What is wrong with that? ... I can't invite who I want? ... I have absolutely no contact with the state or anything else.''
Patricia Rowland makes regular appearances on WDRC with Davis, and the governor, while not a regular, has come on the air with him relatively frequently; the last time was Friday.
``I don't care whether you mention it'' in the newspaper, Davis told a reporter. ``But I'll tell you something right now: You go ahead, but Monday morning, I'm going to have my say, too.''