Where Connecticut goes after scandal

In the gilded capitol building of what by several measures is still the richest state in the union, money and power mixed easily during the booming 1990s. Some say too easily.

And that's what helped produce the biggest political crisis the state has faced in a century. Call it Cottage-gate.

When it turned out that friends, acquaintances, and employees of Gov. John Rowland paid for things like hot tubs and heating systems for the chief executive, the people of this once-proud Puritan state had simply had enough.

Allegations of corruption in his administration led to a series of impeachment hearings, which culminated Monday night in what was expected to be Governor Rowland's resignation.

Such a move would end months of controversy over Rowland's conduct and elevate Lt. Gov. M. Jodi Rell to the top job in the state - allowing the Republicans to fill the seat with a popular politician. It would also effectively end the political career of a man who was once the nation's youngest governor - Rowland was first elected at 37 in 1994 - and considered to be a rising star in the GOP.

Rowland's expected departure - press reports indicated he would announce his resignation Monday night on TV - comes as the state is still reeling from a series of other prominent corruption scandals: from the former state treasurer who was jailed for bribery, to the former Waterbury mayor now in prison for sexual activity with a minor.

"We're not returning to a new standard of morality and ethics, just reasserting the old standards," says John Orman, a political scientist at Fairfield University in Connecticut. "We don't want kickbacks. We don't want people to profit from public office."

And just as corporate America took stock and shifted its focus to corporate governance issues after the Enron and WorldCom scandals, some experts say the political culture in Connecticut will now shift its focus as well.

"There's now going to be a new emphasis on public governance," says John Pavia, a former prosecutor and professor at Quinnipiac University School of Law in Hamden, Conn. "Before reform focused on campaign finance, but I think the next natural progression will be to focus on [governing in a transparent way] with internal risk assessments, testing, and auditing similar to what's going on in corporate America."

Rowland, a Republican reelected to a third term in 2002, admitted late last year that he lied about accepting gifts and favors from friends, state contractors, and employees. But he has denied doing anything in return for accepting those gifts. Indeed, he has said the gifts - from the repairs to a summer cottage, to custom made suits, to cases of champagne - never influenced any decision he made as a public official.

But a series of recent events combined to make it difficult for him to keep fighting. On Friday, the state Supreme Court ruled that he must testify before the impeachment hearings ongoing in the Capitol. At the same time, federal prosecutors are probing whether any laws were broken. Already, one of Rowland's top aides has pleaded guilty to trading gold coins and financial favors for steering state contracts. Another top political aide is expected to be indicted soon.

Some political analysts believe there's a morality tale here about youth and power. Twenty years ago, Rowland was the youngest member of the US House of Representatives when he got caught up in a check-bouncing scandal. A decade later, he became one of Connecticut's youngest governors and was elected to three terms. "He's a guy who went very far, very fast, and very young," says Howard Reiter of the University of Connecticut. "Maybe it was too far, too fast without the kind of maturity that other politicians would have who reached the point that he did at a later age."

And that was exacerbated to some extent by Hartford's clubby political world. Few raised few eyebrows during the tenure of the once-popular Republican when he gave his dear friend "Mama Jo" McKenzie the $84,000-a-year-job overseeing the governor's mansion.

In just the same way, Ms. McKenzie didn't think it was important to ask questions about who paid for renovations at the governor's Bantam Lake summer cottage, even though it was clear at the time that the financially strapped governor could barely afford to pay his alimony and current bills. "I think maybe I can plead guilty to not knowing a lot about ethics - unfortunately, I really didn't think anything about it," she said in a taped interview shown at the impeachment hearings on Friday, noting she just thought the cottage would be "good" for the governor and his children.

Since December when the revelations about the cottage prompted the investigations, Lieutenant Governor Rell has made clear her disapproval of the governor's behavior. But she's also been respectful and kept a distance without passing judgment. Political experts contend she is well-positioned to lead the state out of this era of seeming corruption. "There probably is not a better person on this planet than Jodi Rell to get people to come together in government and move past this experience and this event," says Professor Pavia. "When she was in the legislature, she was probably the most liked and respected legislator in the state."

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