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Story By John Murray
It was a cool Spring day in 2014 and John Rowland was distraught. The former three-term governor of Connecticut had just learned that federal prosecutors were about to indict him on seven counts of campaign election fraud, and he was staring straight into the eyes of a second term in federal prison. Rowland sat alone on a bench in Bryant Park in the heart of New York City. His world was crashing in on him-again-and Rowland wasn’t sure he had the strength to go on. He thought about suicide.
“I began praying,” Rowland told a group of prisoners during a commencement speech he delivered to Inmates to Entrepreneurs on June 22, 2021. “God, I can’t believe I’m in this jam, I can’t believe I’m in this mess. I can’t put my family through this. It’s embarrassing. It’s humiliating. I had totally lost hope.”
Ten years earlier Rowland had resigned from office under the intense dual pressure of state legislators moving to impeach him, and a federal investigation into a pay-to-play scheme involving state contracts. In 2000 George W. Bush had proclaimed John Rowland to to be the future of the Republican Party in America, and Rowland’s resignation in 2004 was a thud heard across the national political landscape, including banner headlines across the front page of the New York Times the following day.
In 2005 Rowland was convicted of honest service fraud, mail fraud and tax fraud, and served ten months in federal prison in Loretto, PA. After his release from prison Rowland began to rebuild his life and in January 2008 he was hired by Waterbury Mayor Michael Jarjura in to serve as the city’s economic development coordinator for $100,000 a year. There was harsh criticism of the hire around the state, but Jarjura didn’t blink, and the local business community gave Rowland, a Waterbury native, a warm familiar embrace.
Months into his new job the national economy cratered and Rowland spent most of his first two years simply trying to retain existing businesses in Waterbury. In 2010, in addition to his job as economic development coordinator in Waterbury, Rowland started hosting an afternoon radio show on WTIC and began to flex his political muscles again across the state. As a former governor he had keen insights into the legislative process and shared his observations with his listeners, and he was often critical of incumbent Governor Dan Malloy, a Democrat. As Rowland’s confidence grew, so did his hunger to get back into the political arena, and he began offering his consulting services to ambitious Republican candidates in the 5th Congressional District in Connecticut, a seat that Rowland had occupied for three terms before being elected Governor in 1994.
Rowland approached several candidates and all but assured them he could deliver the GOP nomination if they hired him as a consultant. He knew the political insiders on key town committees and told prospective candidates that he could deliver the nomination to them. One candidate turned down the proposed $35,000 a month consulting fee (which would continue for a year after the election), but a second candidate agreed to pay Rowland $5000 a month, and they agreed to conceal the deal to avoid negative press attention.
After the deal became public, a federal investigation ensued and Rowland was charged with a conspiracy to steal an honest election from the voters. Rowland was at his lawyers’s office in NYC when he learned he was going to be indicted, and he walked across the street to Bryant Park to sit on a bench to process the unfolding nightmare.
“I absolutely was at the bottom of the feelings I’ve ever had in my life,” Rowland told the inmates. “I said you know what, my family is better off without me. Everybody’s better off without me. I can’t go through this.”
The once darling of the Republican Party, a man who had been whispered about as a possible candidate for the White House, now sat alone on a park bench, hopeless, and suicidal. Rowland shared his story in June with a group of prisoners enrolled in Inmates to Entrepreneurs, a national nonprofit that teaches people with criminal records how to start and grow their own businesses. Rowland was the keynote speaker, via Zoom, and delivered a message of hope and perseverance to the graduates.
An hour after hitting the lowest point in his life on the park bench, Rowland said his two daughters met him in NYC and they went out to dinner. “I explained to them all these violations, and I was crying and I was beside myself,” Rowland said. “And without blinking, my oldest daughter grabbed my hand and said don’t worry, we got this. And it was like the Holy Spirit just lifted this burden off of me. I went from desperate, and a lack of hope, to hope that I could get through this.”
Rowland told the graduates about the ensuing trial, an appeal, and eventually a second stint in federal prison. “I went away and I realized at that time that there was a purpose,” Rowland said. “I think the purpose was to realize and understand what is important in life, and that you cannot give up hope.”
Rowland entered the federal prison system a second time in September 2016 and was released from a half-way house in May 2018. Rowland has largely remained out of the public eye for the past three years. Rowland's speech to the inmates - totally off the cuff while his family hung out in the next room - was one of the rare times he has openly talked about his second incarceration.
Rowland told the graduates that life has been a roller coaster of successes and failures and that he had been through more than his share. “I’ve been through divorce and financial ruin," he said. "I’ve been at the peaks of staying in the Lincoln Bedroom as a guest of George Bush at the White House, and literally a moment later, I was standing in line for toilet paper in the Loretto federal prison, prisoner number 1562301. For those of us that have been incarcerated, we know our numbers, and for those of us that have been through the wringer, you never forget that number no matter how many years go by.”
When Rowland exited prison the first time back in 2006 he became a public speaker talking about his epic political failure, and how his embrace of Christianity had turned his life around. Rowland had written a book in prison called Falling Into Grace that documented his personal transformation. Attempts to get the book published were not successful. During one of his speaking engagements Rowland ran into Chuck Colson, a former aide to President Richard Nixon who got tangled up in the Watergate scandal and was sent to prison in 1974. Colson went through a remarkable transformation himself in 1973 going from Nixon’s hatchet man to become an evangelical Christian. Colson founded a non-profit ministry called Prison Fellowship, and he asked Rowland to join his ministry.
“I had resigned from office, gone to prison and my life was upside down.," Rowland said. "I thought I was finished and Chuck Colson said you’ve got to come work for Prison Fellowship with all these experiences you’ve had. You’ve overseen the prisons as a governor, and you’ve been incarcerated. I thought, oh no, I’ve got bigger fish to fry. I can’t be bothered with some dinky little ministry that’s helping inmates. I’m going to be a radio personality and that’s why I can't work for Prison Fellowship.”
And Rowland did move back into the spotlight as Waterbury's Economic Development Coordinator and WTIC radio host. He had a microphone again and callers into his show called him "Guv."
In December 2011 newly elected mayor, Neil O'Leary, demanded that Rowland work full time as the city's economic development coordinator and give up his radio show. It was going to be city work or radio work, not both. Rowland chose the radio and resigned his city post, and continued on the airwaves until being indicted and convicted a second time on campaign fraud. After his release in 2018 Rowland said WTIC offered him his old time slot back and he said his ego started pulling him back towards the microphone. "It felt like an opportunity at redemption," Rowland said.
In May 2018 Rowland told The Day newspaper in New London that he would stay away from politics. "It's my drug of choice sometimes," Rowland said. "It's intoxicating, and it's exciting. But there are times when you have to walk away from it and decide to do something different and better with your life."
During a talk at Grace Chapel in 2019 Rowland provided more details about that intersection in his life. What was he going to do next? Should he be serving somebody else besides himself?
Days before he signed a contract with WTIC to return to the airwaves Rowland had a conversation with Craig DeRoche, a former Speaker of the House in Michigan, who now worked at Prison Fellowship, Chuck Colson's organization. Rowland expressed doubt at returning to the public arena, and DeRouche tried to recruit Rowland to Prison Fellowship.
Rowland turned to prayer to seek a path forward. His kids wanted him out of public life, but his ego was luring him back to WTIC. Conflicted, Rowland thought back to his hopeless moments on that park bench in NYC.
"I thought about the 2.2 million people sitting in our prisons, and the millions and millions of children of all of these inmates male and female, that are being impacted," Rowland said. "I thought about how much hope they had lost, and how much hope I had lost for that one afternoon, which was nothing in comparison."
Slowly, Rowland realized that his calling was to reject the microphone and serve others by delivering hope to inmates like his daughters had delivered hope to him.
"That answered my question if there was something I should be doing rather than serving myself" Rowland said, and he accepted a job working at Prison Fellowship.
“If I did the right thing years ago then I probably wouldn’t have experienced what I have,” Rowland said, “but I’m 64 years old and it’s never too late to learn some lessons. It’s never too late to change your life. It’s never too late to get back up from being knocked down and try to be successful again, but perhaps the next decision should be about real redemption.”
The personal insights Rowland delivered at Grace Chapel, and his commencement speech in June, revealed a man largely at peace, but still struggling to accept what had happened to him. He spoke of the friends that had deserted him, and said that is was okay, they weren't really friends to begin with. He talked about his first conviction and said he was guilty of honest service fraud, and asked if there were any lawyers in the audience that could explain to him what that meant, because he still had no idea.
When Rowland addressed his second conviction he painted it as an act of revenge by federal prosecutors for the lenient first sentence, and took no responsibility for breaking federal election laws.
"I didn't realize that the two prosecutors had political ambitions before I was even sentenced," Rowland told the audience at Grace Chapel in 2019. "One was declaring his candidacy for governor. I was just a meal ticket, that's what this was all about. You kidding me? He didn't win. He didn't even get the nomination, but that doesn't matter, none of that matters."
In brief moments during both his speeches Rowland's ego, which he admits was enormous when he was Governor, flashed for all to see.
"There's no more obnoxious, narcissistic, ego-fulfilling, pride-felt business, than politics," Rowland said. "It's an ugly business trying to promote yourself and put down others, but that's the life that I had chosen for the last 40 years."
He continues working towards change. Rowland's talk to the inmates in late June was a mix of personal testimony and faith.
“If you’re not tethered, if you’re not connected, if we don’t recognize and understand that there’s something so much bigger and more powerful and more important than us,” Rowland said, “and that’s our faith. If we can grasp that, all the other things begin to work out.”
Rowland addressed the inmates via Zoom, and told the audience that despite all that he has lost, and despite spending two stints in federal prison, he was blessed and happy.
“If you told me five years ago when I was sitting on that bench in Bryant Park that I’d be sitting in this home with my kids and grandkids and enjoying life and serving others, I never would have believed you,” Rowland said, “but it happened. I realized that I have to be open at all times to letting the Holy Spirit work, and open at all times to to be prepared to make the right decision and not let that pride and ego fill the vacancy that might be there.”
Rowland closed with, “I’m honored to deliver this message and I’m honored that you’ve asked me, and for that one person I may have reached, don’t lose hope. Have faith, it’s gonna work out. Don’t ever, ever, ever give up. And never turn your back, and just be open in faith.”
Rowland encouraged the inmates to seek spiritual transformation. "Find the Lord and ask for his help," he said. "Everybody talks about jailhouse conversions as nonsense, but God does his best work when we’re at the bottom, when we’ve lost hope. He will work with us in our most desperate moments, because we’re vacant and ready to listen."
Rowland has been there, hopeless and alone on a park bench in the middle of NYC. With the help of his family and faith, John Rowland fought his way out of the darkness, and his work now is all about encouraging others to do the same.