(Recasts with opening statements, adds testimony from witness, background from court documents)
By Richard Weizel
NEW HAVEN, Conn., Sept 3 (Reuters) - Former Connecticut Governor John Rowland sought consulting work for two Congressional candidates but wanted to be paid via phony, third-party contracts, the prosecution and a witness said on Wednesday as Rowland's trial on charges of violating campaign finance laws opened.
Rowland, 57, who a decade ago was forced to resign from office after being found guilty of corruption, in April pleaded not guilty to seven criminal counts including conspiracy and falsifying records. According to the U.S. Department of Justice, Rowland tried to prevent disclosure to both the Federal Election Commission and the public that he would be paid for campaign work from 2009 through 2012.
The charges involve former Republican congressional candidate Lisa Wilson-Foley and her husband, Brian Foley, who prosecutors contend agreed to pay Rowland $35,000 under what they described as an illegal contract when he worked as a political consultant during the 2012 campaign.
"The evidence will show that John Rowland used the words 'I could get you elected' when speaking to two congressional candidates," Assistant U.S. Attorney Liam Brennan said in his opening statement on Wednesday.
Rowland "sought payments and received payments" from Brian Foley, who funneled the payments through a contract that called for the former governor to be paid for non-existent work at nursing homes that Foley owned and operated, Brennan said.
The first witness to take the stand at U.S. District Court in New Haven, real estate investor and current congressional candidate Mark Greenberg, said that he had rejected Rowland's pitch to work on his campaign because Rowland had insisted on being paid by a third party.
"It would have been against the law, and I ultimately rejected the proposal," Greenberg said, adding that Rowland continued to pester him for six months.
"It was like peanut butter you couldn't get off your hands. He just wouldn't leave it alone," Greenberg said.
Rowland's attorney, Reid Wintergarten, told the jury that the defendant "was working as a volunteer on these campaigns because he loved politics."
Federal prosecutors also accuse Rowland of attempting to work as a paid, but secret, consultant on the Greenberg's Republican congressional campaign in 2009.
They said he sought the third-party payments to avoid attracting attention to his potential role as a campaign adviser, noting in court papers that Rowland in an e-mail to Wilson-Foley said, "I want to stay under the radar as much as possible."
Both Wilton-Foley and Greenberg lost their congressional bids.
Rowland was forced from office after pleading guilty to accepting gifts and work at his home from contractors who were awarded lucrative state contracts. He served 10 months in prison in 2006 on those charges. (Reporting by Richard Weizel; Editing by Scott Malone and Leslie Adler)