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Gov. Rowland Won’t Quit Over Gift Flap

December 17, 2003

CROMWELL, Conn. (AP) _ Gov. John G. Rowland vowed again Wednesday to ``finish what I started″ as governor despite the furor over his admission that he took gifts from employees and state contractors.

In a speech to the Middlesex Chamber of Commerce, Rowland apologized again for what he said were ``failures″ on his part.

``But I won’t forget where the goal posts are. I still have them in sight and I will press on,″ Rowland said. ``I will finish what I started.″

Although he had appeared at one gathering over the weekend, Wednesday’s remarks were his first speech since admitting last week he had misstated the source of funds for work done to a vacation home.

Once a rising star in Republican politics, Rowland now is fending off talk of impeachment and questions about his ethics, honesty and ability to govern.

An excruciating year of budget shortfalls, state employee layoffs and ethical crises culminated last week in Rowland’s admission that a major state contractor and several friends _ including some under suspicion in a federal corruption probe _ paid for renovations to his lakefront cottage.

It was an embarrassing about-face for the three-term governor, who had insisted 10 days earlier that he alone had paid for all the improvements at the cottage in rural but ritzy Litchfield County.

And it wasn’t his first embarrassment this year.

In June, Rowland paid about $9,000 to settle a state Ethics Commission investigation into discounted vacation stays at homes belonging to people who did business with the state. In August he paid $6,000 to settle a state Elections Enforcement Commission complaint over personal charges he made to a state Republican Party credit card.

In March, Rowland’s former deputy chief of staff pleaded guilty to accepting gold and cash in return for steering state contracts. The probe has widened as investigators look into the Rowland cottage and whether any contractors were promised state work.

Rowland has not been charged with any crime. He has voluntarily released documents and canceled checks to federal authorities and admitted in his written apology that his initial remarks about the cottage were ``incorrect and incomplete.″

Legislative leaders from both parties have taken a wait-and-see attitude, downplaying impeachment talk. But their tone remains grave.

``There’s been no time in our history that the governor’s seat has been in such jeopardy of losing its credibility, integrity and character,″ said House Majority Leader James Amann, D-Milford.

Three Connecticut newspapers have called on Rowland to resign, and The New York Times said that unless Rowland can put to rest ``doubts about his honesty″ he should step aside and let someone else run the state.

The chairman of the state Democratic Party also called for Rowland to temporarily leave office. Meanwhile, a handful of rank-and-file Democratic legislators say they want to pursue impeachment.

Anger and disappointment extend into Rowland’s own party.

``He has no margin of error,″ Rep. Chris Shays, R-Conn., told WTNH-TV. ``I mean, he’s on the edge of a cliff and the only way, I think, you walk away from the cliff is take the press head-on, answer all their questions.″

Other Republicans are rallying around the governor, forming what they call a ``truth squad″ to counter the barrage of negative news.

``People in Connecticut care about bread-and-butter issues like taxes, education, health care for the elderly ... and rebuilding our cities,″ said state GOP Chairman Herb Shepardson. Rowland ``has been strong on those issues and that’s why he’s been elected three times. When the dust settles, people will remember that’s what being governor is all about.″

First elected governor at age 37, Rowland has been generally popular, especially in a state where Democrats outnumber Republicans _ though most voters in Connecticut are unaffiliated. Rowland has served as head of the Republican Governors Association, is a friend of President Bush and was repeatedly rumored to be a potential Cabinet nominee.

Two years ago a Quinnipiac University Poll showed Rowland with his highest job approval rating ever _ 78 percent.

The scandals and investigations, combined with the recession and budget deficits that led Rowland to issue 2,800 layoff notices, have driven that number sharply lower. Last month his approval rating was 37 percent; that figure sank to 30 percent in a Quinnipiac poll released Wednesday.

``We’ve never seen such a fall by an elected official in our polling in New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania and Connecticut,″ Douglas Schwartz, polling director for Quinnipiac University, said earlier.

A University of Connecticut poll released Tuesday shows 55 percent of Connecticut residents believe Rowland should resign. If he does not step down, however, 75 percent of residents surveyed said state lawmakers should not impeach Rowland until an investigation is completed.

``The fact that most people think it’s not a good idea to proceed with any kind of impeachment shows they understand that all the facts aren’t on the table,″ Rowland spokesman Dean Pagani said Tuesday night.

The Quinnipiac poll out Wednesday, which surveyed registered voters, not state residents, found 45 percent said Rowland should stay, and 44 percent said he should go.

The scandals come in the same year that the mayor of Bridgeport, the state’s largest city, was convicted and sentenced to nine years in prison on federal corruption charges. Also this year, the mayor of Rowland’s hometown, Waterbury, was sentenced to 37 years in prison on charges involving sexual contact with children.

``Political corruption seems endemic in Connecticut,″ said Lisa Gamsu, a construction worker from Hartford.

``Here are people with so much opportunity to improve things,″ she said Tuesday. ``To steal on such a cheesy level, it just doesn’t make financial sense or political sense.″

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