Story and Photographs By John Murray
During jury selection for the trial of the United States of America versus John G .Rowland prospective jurors were handed questionnaires and asked to fill them out. Bob McCormack was in a crowd of more than 100 candidates, and when he read the first question he was sure that would be the end of his day in federal court. The question was, “Do you know John Rowland?”
“Yes,” McCormack wrote. “Rowland was a 1975 classmate of mine at Holy Cross High School in Waterbury.”
And with that, McCormack thought he would be recused from the jury pool. “I thought there was no chance of John’s high school classmate being selected,” McCormack said, “but they called me up and asked if I could be fair, and I said I could.”
They were classmates but they weren’t friends, and McCormack said they had never socialized. Rowland was president of the class of 1975, the captain of the wrestling team and was involved in lots of extracurricular activities. McCormack said he lived in the East End of Waterbury, and since there were no late buses, he went straight home after school. In the years that followed high school graduation McCormack was more interested in rock and roll than politics, and that he and Rowland moved in different circles, he said.
Bob McCormack's senior portrait from Holy Cross High School in 1975.
McCormack answered another 150 questions on the questionnaire, and was stunned a few hours later when he was selected to be one of the 16 jurors.
“The prosecution, defense, and the judge all had a certain number of jurors they could automatically dismiss. The prosecution must have run out of options, and the defense must have hoped I would throw John a lifeline,” McCormack said. “How I ended up on the jury is a mystery to me.”
In the 39 years since graduating from high school the two had crossed paths a few times, but “we never had coffee or beer together,” McCormack said.
John Rowland's senior portrait from Holy Cross High School in 1975.
Now, in a wild twist of fate, McCormack was about to sit in judgment of a former classmate he graduated with from a small parochial school on Oronoke Road in the Town Plot neighborhood of Waterbury.
Two days after a jury convicted John Rowland on charges of breaking campaign finance laws, McCormack sent me a message on Facebook. After the verdict he had spent the better part of two days catching up on the news and reading articles about Rowland. He had stumbled upon an old Observer column about a derailed book project I had worked on with Rowland in 2010, and he contacted me to say that he agreed with the premise of my column: that arrogance had toppled Connecticut’s former three-term governor from a lofty perch.
I asked McCormack if he could talk on the record, and he said yes, but that his comments would only reflect his opinion, not the entire jury’s. Thrilled, I waited a few days to allow him time to process his experience, then made arrangements to meet him at Dunkin Donuts on Main Street in Thomaston. We spent two hours going over the trial and zeroing in on how the jury arrived at its quick and unanimous decision.
The charges against Rowland in the case originated from allegations that he pitched a false contract to Republican Mark Greenberg in 2009 that would have earned him $750,000 in consulting fees, and he worked for Lisa Wilson-Foley’s Congressional campaign in 2011 and conspired to illegally hide his compensation from the Federal Election Commission (FEC). Federal prosecutors say the former governor drafted up false contracts in 2009 and 2011 designed to conceal his role in the political process.
With a past felony conviction for receiving illegal gifts while Governor, Rowland had been forced to resign in disgrace and was now an undesirable front person for any Congressional campaign. His extraordinary political skills and insights, however, could still lead a candidate to victory. The problem for any candidate was how to tap Rowland’s knowledge while keeping him shielded from the public and media to avoid the inevitable backlash. The solution, the prosecution claimed, was to try and conceal Rowland’s political work for Lisa Wilson-Foley in the 5th District race with a bogus contract with a lawyer working for the candidate’s husband, Brian Foley.
Rowland was paid $5000 a month ($35,000 total) by Foley’s lawyer, Chris Shelton, and the looming question in the trial centered on what Rowland was compensated for – political or business work.
The defense argued that Rowland believed that Apple Rehab was his employer, and that he performed legitimate work to earn the $35,000. Rowland’s lawyers argued that he was a volunteer on Wilson-Foley’s campaign and he never tried to hide his involvement - and in fact it would be impossible to conceal one of the most recognizable faces in Connecticut. Rowland’s defense called only one witness, Brian Bedard, the chief operating officer at Apple Rehab who testified that Rowland had done meaningful work for the company.
I attended the opening and closing days of the trial, and had closely followed media accounts of the testimony every day in between. Knowing John Rowland for 25 years clouded my perception of the process, but it appeared to me that his defense team had scored points during the trial and might have succeeded in planting a seed of doubt in the minds of the jurors. As I headed to New Haven to hear the final arguments I predicted to a political friend that Rowland would beat the charges. Six hours later, after hearing a brilliant closing argument from U.S. Attorney Christopher Mattei, I texted my friend, “Rowland is in trouble.”
Walking out of the couthouse with his wife Patty and daughters Julieanne, left, and Kirsten.
As I left New Haven Thursday afternoon, September 18, the case was in the hands of the jury. Earlier in the day it had taken Judge Janet Arteton two and half hours to go through the complicated elements of seven felony charges, and every minute of her instruction sucked oxygen and energy from the courtroom. At the two-hour mark, several jurors were dazed, and one seemed to be struggling to stay awake.
During my drive home that night I thought about the arduous task the jury faced separating the truth (if there is such a thing in politics) from a fog of conflicting testimony. If it had taken Judge Arteton two hours to simply read the charges, it seemed like it would take the jury days to shift through evidence and reach a decision.
Shockingly (at least to me), the jury rendered a swift verdict the following day. Rowland, who was once on a list of possible presidential candidates, and who George W. Bush had declared to be the future of the Republican Party in 2000, was found guilty on one count of conspiracy, two counts of falsifying records, two counts of causing false statements, and two counts of causing illegal campaign contributions. Now a two-time convicted felon, Rowland faces a maximum of 57 years in prison. He will be sentenced in January.
My overwhelming reaction to the verdict was: How did the jury decide so quickly? What impact did the prosecution’s closing argument have on the verdict, and what went on in that jury room? Thanks to a Facebook message, I was about to find out.
As the trial began McCormack was a little nervous, and determined to keep an open mind about the testimony and evidence. After the opening arguments McCormack said he went home thinking the trial was going to be a dogfight, and that Rowland’s defense had won the first round.
“The young prosecutor relied heavily on a Power Point presentation,” McCormack said, “and although he did it well, it was a distraction.”
When defense attorney Reid Weingarten delivered his opening statement defending Rowland, he looked directly at the jury and relied on notes. McCormack said the presentation was very effective, “I thought we were going to see a war.”
Attorney Reid Weingarten
Here’s what happened during the trial as McCormack saw it:
• McCormack knows a lot of people in greater Waterbury and after spotting a few familiar faces in the courtroom – including Atty Michael Tansely - he was brought before the judge and asked if that might influence his decision. He told Judge Arteton it would not, and he continued on.
• McCormack said the prosecutors were more effective putting on their case, while Weingarten, after his opening statement, appeared disorganized shuffling his files around, and once tripping over electrical cords that knocked out a Power Point presentation.
• Day by day, McCormack said, “the evidence got worse for John Rowland.”
• Jurors pondered where Rowland was getting the money for a team of five defense attorneys.
• Rowland’s only witness, Brian Bedard, “got his ass handed to him.” McCormack said the feds tore him apart on cross-examination and Bedard provided no credible testimony. When Bedard was excused from the witness stand, Judge Arteton advised Bedard to walk, not run out of the courtroom. McCormack said Bedard replied, “Can I jog?”
• McCormack said he watched Rowland during the trial and the former three-term governor seldom changed his “frozen face” expression, except one memorable time during Weingarten’s closing argument. Weingarten challenged the premise that the Wilson-Foley campaign had conspired to conceal Rowland’s work in the 2011 race for Congress. “You can’t hide John Rowland in Connecticut,” Weingarten bellowed. “He’s the 800-pound gorilla in the room. No, he’s the 8000-pound gorilla in the room.”
McCormack said at that point he saw John Rowland sit up a little straighter and smile, as if to say, “Yeah, that’s me.”
• Jurors understood that if Rowland took the stand he would have opened himself up to a harsh line of questioning about his previous felony conviction, and his refusal to do so wasn’t held against him.
• McCormack said the closing argument from U.S. Attorney Christopher Mattei was superb and boiled Rowland’s crime down to this: “He conspired to rob the voters of the right to know what was going on in the 2011 race for Congress.” McCormack said Mattei’s 90-minute closing argument was flawless and he “knocked it out of the park.”
U.S. Attorney Christopher Mattei
• During Mattei’s closing argument, “He walked up and down the jury box and looked everyone of us directly in the eye. At times I felt he was three inches from my face. He was so intense that a few times I had to look away.”
• Weingarten’s closing argument was rambling and disjointed, and he came off unprepared as he shuffled through files of documents.
After closing arguments the jury had an hour left in the day for the jury to begin its deliberations, but first the panel had to be trimmed down from 16 to 12.
“Four jurors were excused and then 12 of us looked at each other and kind of said, “Wow”,” McCormack said. “This was reality. We were now going to decide John Rowland’s fate.”
One of the jurors was an attorney and was selected as foreman “by default.”
Initial deliberations centered on what the jury thought about the attorneys and witnesses. “We expressed our feelings and talked about the players,” McCormack said. “It was the first time that we could openly talk about what we had been listening to for the past 12 days.”
When the jury left Thursday afternoon there had been no discussion about Rowland’s guilt or innocence, and when McCormack went home that night he said he had, “no sense of the verdict.”
That night he slept restlessly wondering how the jury was going to arrive at its decision. “We were all very tense because we were deciding a man’s future,” McCormack said.
On Friday morning they began by reading the first charge out loud and going around the table one by one and expressing their opinion – guilty or not guilty.
“The first time around there were a few holdouts,” McCormack said. “They were not convinced. They were asked what they were stuck on, and we talked about it and looked at the evidence.”
They quickly reached a 12-0 guilty vote on charge #1, which involved falsification of records in a federal investigation relating to Greenberg’s 2009 campaign.
In his closing argument, defense attorney Reid Weingarten had told the jury that if they found Rowland not guilty on charge #2 (conspiracy), that they’d have to find Rowland not guilty of charges 4, 5, 6 and 7 (causing false records to be filed with the FEC, and causing illegal campaign contributions).
When the jury quickly found Rowland guilty on the conspiracy count, there was little resistance to arriving at the same conclusion on charges, 4, 5, 6 and 7.
“Weingarten’s closing argument came back to bite him,” McCormack said. “Once we found John guilty of conspiracy, the other four charges were easy to decide.”
McCormack said some jurors hesitated on charges 4, 5, 6 and 7, but quickly overcome that by examining Rowland’s intent to create the conspiracy.
“We kept going back to intent,” McCormack said. “Why was the Foley contract signed with a lawyer who John Rowland never met? The intent was to hide John Rowland’s involvement in the political campaign.”
McCormack said there wasn’t one “gotcha” moment in the trial, but the e-mail trail the prosecutors presented was devastating. McCormack said an e-mail exchange between Foley, his lawyer, Chris Shelton, and Rowland, was the heart of the prosecution. If Rowland had signed a consulting contract with Apple Rehab there wouldn’t have been much of a case, McCormack said. Instead Rowland signed a contract with Shelton and wrote to Foley, “Don’t remember if I put JGR Associates as the company on the contract, but that will give us more cover.”
McCormack said, “That’s the whole conspiracy right there. What were they trying to hide? What was John Rowland’s intent in creating cover?”
And what was the cover for?
“John Rowland tried to cover his involvement in the race and conceal vital information about who and what we as Americans were voting for,” McCormack said. “John Rowland was trying to deceive us. John thought he was above the law.”
McCormack said if Rowland had asked ‘Why is the contract not between Apple Rehab and me? Why is a lawyer paying me?” he would have been okay. Instead, Rowland requested more cover, in what McCormack described as the “incriminating e-mail.”
After swiftly reaching seven guilty verdicts the jury paused to reconsider.
“We looked to see if there was anything we could do for him,” McCormack said. “None of us wanted to reach a guilty verdict. We looked for mercy, but there was nothing there. Every time we found a crumb it vanished in a few moments. It kept coming back to, ‘what was his intent? And intent was his downfall.”
When it was time to announce the verdict, McCormack said he didn’t want to go out into the courtroom and deliver the devastating news to Rowland’s wife and two daughters.
“It was so emotional. Our foreman had to stand and read the charges and verdict out loud,” McCormack said. “I don’t know how he did it.”
After the first verdict was announced the Rowland girls began to weep, and with each successive verdict the crying got louder. “It was devastating,” McCormack said. “Several of the jurors behind me were openly sobbing. It was one of the most emotional things I’ve ever gone through.”
After the verdict was read, Judge Arteton polled the jury and one by one they had to announce their decision. “I didn’t want to say it,” McCormack said, “I almost lost it saying guilty, but I said it.”
McCormack took a peek at Rowland to see how he was handling the news and he was “stern and stoic, just like he was throughout the trial. I didn’t feel bad for John, I felt terrible for his family.”
Back in the jury room, Judge Arteton asked jury members what they thought about their experience.
“There were a lot of wet eyes in the jury room,” McCormack said, “including my own. Some of the jurors were unable to speak they were so upset.”
The jurors were given a questionnaire and McCormack rated the judge (excellent), the two federal prosecutors (excellent) and Weingarten (average).
After the trial McCormack read through a stack of articles and concluded that Rowland’s defense team hadn’t lived up to its billing, “Or maybe they had nothing to defend,” he said.
Nearly two weeks after the verdict Bob McCormack had had time to reflect on his intense experience as a juror in the Rowland trial and offered up the following observations.
• Rowland had signed a contract to conceal his involvement but attended fundraisers at Carmen Anthony’s restaurant and the Palace Theater, where he was front and center with a microphone. “Did they forget they were trying to hide him?” McCormack asked. “It reminded me of a crack addict, but in John’s case it wasn’t a drug he was after, it was attention.”
• “Once Rowland was front and center at the fundraisers, the cat was out of the bag, so why not report the money to the FEC? If they had done that the federal investigation would never have gotten off the ground.”
• “Why did Rowland get involved in a campaign against a guy (former FBI agent Mike Clark) who helped lock him up the first time? You can’t make this stuff up.”
• “As soon as Rowland signed the contract with Foley he took over Lisa Wilson-Foley’s campaign.Why not try harder to make it look like a consulting contract with Apple Rehab? Egos got in the way and Rowland was arrogant throughout the process.”
• “There was so much money spent putting on the trial, and so much pain, for the $35,000 Rowland made in consulting fees. The whole thing was stupid.”
• Did Rowland recognize his old Crusader classmate? “We locked eyes once and he gave me a little wink,” McCormack said.
• McCormack said he would not be surprised if Judge Arteton sentenced Rowland to 8 to 10 years in prison. “I found out after the trial that he had been offered a deal for 18 months and he refused. He made them put on a trial and he lost. I think the judge will hit him hard for that.”
• McCormack said Rowland should be entering the best years of his life, his kids are raised and out of the house and he could be doing anything he and Patty wanted. Instead, he’ll most likely miss his children’s weddings and spend years in federal prison.
• “Big lesson: If you’re going to do something, don’t put it in e-mails. Without the e-mails there was no case.”
Initially, and for part of the trial, McCormack didn’t understand what the big deal about the case was. “I thought it was the regular political garbage that goes on all the time and I didn’t get it,” he said. “This was a white-collar crime. We weren’t trying a murderer or a rapist. Who was the victim? Who got hurt?”
The closing argument convinced him otherwise.
“We were the victims,” McCormack said. “John Rowland tried to take away our right to know. If you take voting seriously, that means something.”
After the verdict, Judge Arteton asked if the jury wanted to speak to the media and they reached an eighth verdict that day – no – they were too drained and they exited the rear of the courthouse and went their separate ways.
Ironically Bob McCormack had an event he had planned to attend that night at The Hills Restaurant in Waterbury – the 39th reunion of the Holy Cross class of 1975. “I decided not to go,” McCormack said. “I was very emotional that night. I had just helped put my classmate behind bars.”