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Respected by Lawmakers, Garber Unsure of Future

New Haven Register

July 1, 2004

HARTFORD — At an empty oak conference table on the 15th floor of a New York City courthouse, Ross Garber sat alone.

Three of Connecticut’s top corruption-busting prosecutors huddled a few feet away, whispering and nodding. They were at the 2nd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals try

They were at the 2nd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals trying to gain access to Gov. John G. Rowland's legal secrets.

It was a day after Rowland announced he would resign, and Garber was here to stop them from compelling testimony from a former attorney in the governor's office.

He had case law stacked against him and no other lawyers at his table.

Rowland had long ago lost the support of the public, and many top Republicans also had abandoned him. At night, Garber even had to explain to his 6-year-old daughter why, even though it's not OK to lie, everyone deserves to have somebody on their side.

It was Garber's job to defend Rowland's actions as governor.

His client, meanwhile, was back in Hartford, preparing to leave office. Rowland had just announced his intention to resign amid a federal contract steering investigation and a legislative impeachment inquiry into gifts he received from state contractors and employees.

After helping Lt. Gov. M. Jodi Rell in her transition to governor, Garber plans to leave as legal counsel to the governor's office. Garber, who once ran unsuccessfully for state treasurer, says he's not sure what he'll do next.

"It's hard to imagine a job that will be as interesting as this one," Garber said. "I hope so but I fear not."

Garber fought a lonely battle in which he walked a legal tightrope defending the governor's office while leaving Rowland's criminal defense to his personal attorney.

"You're representing someone about as unpopular as any politician in state history," said Rep. Michael Lawlor, D-East Haven, who served on a committee that conducted Rowland's impeachment hearings.

Lawlor, one of Rowland's sharpest critics, and others say Garber managed to mount a strong defense under difficult circumstances and emerged well-positioned for the private sector.

"I would expect he would be welcome anywhere," said James Bergenn, an attorney who has worked with Garber. "He essentially had to be the last guard to protect the office of the governor while it was under siege."

Others are less certain about Garber's political prospects.

"A lot of people will respect the tenacity of his defense of the governor," said Democratic Party Chairman George Jepsen. "But a large number of people will forever associate him with being part of the inner circle of a very corrupt, immoral and dishonest man."

In the New York courtroom, Garber argued behind closed doors that Rowland's former legal counsel, Anne George, cannot be forced to testify in the case. The court has not yet issued a decision.

A 37-year-old Republican from Glastonbury, Garber is a graduate of the University of Connecticut Law School who formerly worked for the Hartford law firm of Shipman & Goodwin. From 1995-1997, he clerked for U.S. District Judge Robert Chatigny, who is now expected to preside over any federal corruption trial brought against members of Rowland's administration.

Garber, who also has worked on political asylum and white-collar cases, has a passion for independent films, travel and reading biographies - especially those of Lyndon B. Johnson. He also enjoys rap music.

Bergenn recalled that during a break while attending a seminar in Miami, Garber went off to explore Little Havana while others went to restaurants and played golf.

"He's fiercely intellectually curious," Bergenn said. "He really has an appetite for knowledge and understanding."

Garber joined the Rowland administration last year, just before the corruption scandal erupted.

The situation rapidly deteriorated. Garber was vacationing in December in San Francisco, watching his daughter swim, when he learned that Rowland was caught lying about free improvements he received from state contractors to his summer cottage.

Rowland issued a statement explaining who did the work. Garber would later take heat from Rowland's flamboyant aide and confidante, Jo McKenzie, who blamed him for the details of that statement. She said she wanted "to wring his neck off" for suggesting she coordinated the cottage renovations.

And when it came time for the 71-year-old McKenzie's colorful videotaped deposition to air during Rowland's impeachment hearing, all Garber did was laugh throughout it.

Garber fought a subpoena ordering the governor to testify before the legislative committee weighing his impeachment in a historic case before the Connecticut Supreme Court. He argued that the subpoena violated the separation of powers between the two branches of government.

Garber lost the case, although one lawmaker gave him a hug after making what many observers called an eloquent argument to the high court.

Three days later, after conferring with Garber and other advisers, Rowland announced his resignation.

"But in the end I think people could say the system worked because there was a political resolution short of impeachment," Garber said. "One thing it's done for me is demonstrate in a dramatic way the significance of government, the significance of the law."

This article is reprinted by permission from the New Haven Register.

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