Former Connecticut Governor John G. Rowland, dogged by a corruption inquiry that drove him from office in July, pleaded guilty yesterday to a federal felony charge that he traded the power of his position for more than $100,000 in gifts and favors, including home improvements.
Rowland, 47, once considered one of the brightest young stars in the Republican Party, pleaded guilty to conspiracy to steal honest services, which carries a maximum sentence of five years and a $250,000 fine. Sentencing guidelines for the charge, a combination of mail and tax fraud, recommend 15 to 21 months in federal prison.
The three-term governor admitted in a plea agreement that he steered tens of millions of dollars in state business to favored companies. Prosecutors also said that Rowland conspired to defraud the Internal Revenue Service, to which he owes more than $35,000 in taxes and interest on the gifts, according to court documents.
''I think this plea agreement is in the best interest of my family, and I think it's in the best interest of the state to get on with their business," Rowland said in a statement read outside court. ''Obviously, mistakes have been made throughout the last few years, and I accept responsibility for those."
During his brief appearance in the New Haven court, Rowland at times chewed on his glasses in apparent nervousness, but answered US District Judge Peter Dorsey's questions in confident tones. As he signed his bail papers, Rowland looked at his wife, Patricia, and mouthed the words, ''All right."
He still faces the possibility of state charges. State prosecutors said yesterday they had not decided whether to pursue a criminal case.
Rowland is likely to face prison time when he is sentenced March 11, said Stephen Latham, a law professor at Quinnipiac University in Hamden, Conn. The benefits of a plea agreement, Latham said, are that Rowland ''avoids the embarrassment of a trial, and he gains . . . the ability to start serving a sentence sooner."
Connecticut politicians from both major parties welcomed Rowland's admission of guilt.
Governor M. Jodi Rell, the former Republican lieutenant governor who replaced Rowland, said: ''Today, the state of Connecticut was humiliated, and I, as John Rowland's former running mate and colleague, feel personally betrayed. When I first heard the news, I felt like I was punched in the gut."
George Jepsen, chairman of the state Democratic Party, said: ''I'm pleased that the state can start to bring closure. . . . John Rowland transformed state government into a massive racketeering operation and, I think, disgraced himself and his office. It's best that we avoid a trial and move beyond it."
As a felon, Rowland will be unable to vote or hold political office. In 1994, at age 37, he was the nation's youngest governor. Rowland also became chairman of the Republican Governors Association and was a family friend of President George W. Bush.
Rowland's fall from power began when he admitted last December that he had lied when he denied accepting gifts and vacation-home repairs from contractors and friends. As bribery cases involving some of his closest aides swirled around him, Rowland insisted that he had nothing to do with any influence-peddling in his office. But as a federal investigation and state impeachment inquiry began to focus on the governor, his support crumbled both in and outside the state Capitol.
Rowland announced in June that he would resign to spare the state the political ordeal of impeachment hearings. Yesterday's plea spared Rowland an indictment and a highly publicized trial that his lawyer, William Dow III, said could have resulted in a severe sentence.
House Speaker Moira Lyons, a Stamford Democrat whose decision to begin impeachment proceedings proved pivotal in Rowland's decision to resign, said the former governor has only himself to blame. ''The purpose of public service is to better the lives of the people you serve, not to line your own pockets or those of your friends," Lyons said.
A resident of Waterbury, Rowland recently reacquired a license to sell insurance, said Senator Louis DeLuca, the Republican minority leader who has been a staunch Rowland supporter. Rowland's wife also has an antiques business, DeLuca said.
DeLuca said he was surprised by the plea, although speculation had been mounting for weeks that Rowland would be indicted in the racketeering case that already had leveled federal charges against Peter Ellef, the governor's former cochief of staff, and William Tomasso, a contractor who has been awarded lucrative state contracts.
In the plea agreement, Rowland admitted that he knew Tomasso had been given a favored position by Ellef for a $57 million contract to build the Connecticut Juvenile Training School in Middletown.
''You joined, in some fashion, with this agreement. Is that true?" Dorsey asked Rowland.
''Yes," Rowland replied.
Rowland also acknowledged that he told the state's transportation commissioner to give Tomasso a contract for a parking garage at Bradley International Airport.
Federal investigators also uncovered $15,549 in gifts from Tomasso and $91,493 in free airfare from a charter jet company. Key Air received a retroactive tax exemption in 2002, signed by Rowland, that Ellef had sought.
Gifts to Rowland included Cuban cigars, champagne, a hot tub, canoe, and a vintage Mustang, according to the FBI. Investigators also questioned players in low-stakes poker games with Rowland, who was scrutinized for possibly skimming money in the games.
Material from the Associated Press was used in this report.