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Pressure on Conn. governor increasing

Key Democrat leader foresees impeachment

HARTFORD -- As political pressure mounts on Governor John G. Rowland to resign, the Connecticut Democratic Party chairman is predicting that the Legislature would move to impeach the Republican chief executive if he does not step down and ethics concerns continue to widen.

 

"Nobody believes him anymore, even over simple things," said George Jepsen, a former Senate majority leader who now serves as state Democratic chairman. "I believe that if he doesn't resign, that he'll be impeached."

Jepsen predicted in an interview Wednesday that such a move would gain momentum, even in GOP circles, if additional revelations of ethical impropriety surface from an ongoing federal investigation and media scrutiny of the Rowland administration's relationship with preferred contractors.

Rowland, alternately contrite and pugnacious, has pledged to continue a third term despite his admission this month that he lied about free work done on his vacation home by friends and contractors who do business with the state. In addition, an ongoing federal investigation into bid-rigging of state contracts is believed to have expanded its focus to include questions about the governor himself.

While the rhetoric escalates, and Rowland tries to ride out a hurricane of public outcry, the state House of Representatives has begun reviewing the guidelines for an unprecedented impeachment debate.

"The House leadership wants to be prepared, and so they're researching this process," one high-ranking legislative aide said. Connecticut, which has never impeached a state official, allows its House of Representatives to define an impeachable offense.

"There's serious discussion about this option should there not be a resignation," another top legislative aide said.

It would take a simple majority in the 151-member, Democrat-controlled House to impeach Rowland. Then, the Senate would conduct a trial. A two-thirds vote is needed to convict in the Senate, where Democrats, with a 21-to-15 advantage, are three seats short of that threshold.

None of the State House leadership from either party has called directly for Rowland's resignation. The state's three Republicans in the US House of Representatives plan to meet with the governor after the holidays, after expressing dismay about Rowland.

So far, reaction from US Representatives Christopher Shays and Rob Simmons, both Republicans, has been intense and negative. Shays has said that the revelations have "wounded Governor Rowland's moral authority to lead," and Simmons has urged the governor to think seriously about stepping down if more damaging disclosures are on the way.

"If there is anything more that blurs the line between the public good and private gain, or rises to the level of an impeachable offense, let's have the courage to consider resignation," Simmons said Dec. 17.

The state Senate minority leader staunchly defended the governor's decision to serve until the investigation is complete. Senator Louis DeLuca, a Republican from Woodbury, compared the revelations about Rowland's vacation home to President Clinton's admission about his affair with Monica Lewinsky.

"If that's all there is, maybe he can overcome it," DeLuca said.

While Rowland has asked the public for forgiveness, his appearance at a Chamber of Commerce breakfast last week had observers scratching their heads. First, Rowland apologized to the audience for lying about the work on his vacation home. But then he encouraged his wife, Patricia, as she read a parody of "The Night Before Christmas" in which she lambasted the media for reporting about the scandal.

During the poem, Rowland urged his wife to "go for it."

"You can't have it both ways," one legislative official said.

Rowland has stopped responding to media questions about the work done on his vacation cottage. However, The Hartford Courant this week published a report that appears to contradict the governor's assertions that his office did not play a direct role in approving state purchases and contracts.

The Courant reported that it had reviewed four public works contracts, among thousands of pages of documents subpoenaed by federal officials, that had been faxed to Rowland's former co-chief of staff for approval. The contracts ranged from the $269,000 installation of security gates at the governor's mansion to a $3 million visitors' center at a state park.

"It's almost unfolding like a train wreck in slow motion," said Jepsen, the Democratic chairman.

Rowland's precipitous fall from grace has made this month one of the most tumultuous in Connecticut political history. On Dec. 2, the governor denied that he had accepted free work on his Litchfield waterfront cottage. Then, on Dec. 12, Rowland reversed himself and admitted he had lied about who paid for renovations worth thousands of dollars.

The governor provided a list of contractors and state employees who had performed the free service. The names of the Tomasso Group, which has performed millions of dollars of work for the state, and two former aides were notable because of their reported scrutiny in the bid-rigging investigation.

The Tomasso Group provided exterior work on gutters and drainage in 1999. Also in that year, the two aides paid for heating improvements at the cottage.

One of the aides, Rowland's former deputy chief of staff Lawrence E. Alibozek, pleaded guilty in March to accepting cash for steering state contracts to companies that included the Tomasso Group. The other aide, former co-chief of staff Peter N. Ellef, has said he is innocent of any wrongdoing. Ellef resigned in 2001 following a disastrous trash-to-energy deal with Enron that cost Connecticut more than $200 million.

The governor also has said that a paving company, which has received $1.3 million in state contracts during his tenure, hauled topsoil to the cottage in 1997 but was not paid until this September, when questions began to emerge about unpaid work there.

The operator of the paving company, Anthony R. Cocchiola, was a business partner with Rowland in a development group that sold house lots near the governor's hometown of Waterbury.

Rowland, 46, is serving a third term that would expire in 2007. The growing controversy is a stunning reversal for a governor who, as recently as December 2001, had a 78 percent approval rating, according to a Quinnipiac University poll of registered voters. In a Quinnipiac survey released Dec. 17, Rowland's approval rate is at 30 percent.

The latest poll also reported that 73 percent said they do not believe Rowland is honest.

The backlash straddles party lines. Even 61 percent of Republicans said they think Rowland is not honest.

On the question of resignation, the electorate was evenly divided in the Quinnipiac poll. Of those polled, 44 percent said he should step down, with 45 percent opposing that step. A University of Connecticut survey released last week showed 55 percent favoring Rowland's resignation.

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