A one-time top aide to former Gov. John G. Rowland (searchand a major state construction contractor pleaded not guilty Friday to charges they ran a criminal organization from the governor's office, trading contracts for gold coins, expensive meals and limousine trips.

Former co-chief of staff Peter N. Ellef (searchand contractor William Tomasso (searchwere released on $100,000 bonds. Ellef's son, Peter N. Ellef II (search), was expected to enter a similar plea Friday.

Tomasso is accused of giving the elder Ellef more than $1 million worth of gold, cash, trips, meals and vacations. In return, Ellef allegedly helped steer tens of millions of dollars in contracts to Tomasso and his companies between 1997 and 2003.

Prosecutors allege Tomasso funneled money to the elder Ellef through his son's landscaping business. While Tomasso was paying the company, the older Ellef allegedly used company a credit card for expensive meals, designer clothes and other personal expenses, according to the indictment.

"I am not guilty," Tomasso repeated emphatically each time he was asked to enter a plea.

The indictment does not name Rowland, but says the racketeering scheme included at least five people, only four of whom are named. On one occasion "a former high level state official" received a nearly $300 bottle of champagne, the indictment said.

Many deals outlined in the indictment surfaced in the past year, forcing Rowland to admit he lied about gifts he received from state contractors, including Tomasso. He resigned July 1 amid the investigation and a legislative impeachment inquiry.

Rowland declined comment on the indictments Thursday. He has said he did nothing wrong.

The disputed deals included the contract to clean up the Connecticut Lottery (searchheadquarters after a deadly 1998 shooting spree, a $57 million reform school project, a proposed business venture with a Chinese company and a lucrative fuel-cell deal.

The landscaping company's credit card, bolstered by Tomasso's money, was used to pay for the construction of the younger Ellef's home and other expenses, prosecutors allege.

The charges are based on the Racketeer Influenced Corrupt Organizations (searchlaw, the same law used to take down Mafia families and, more recently in Connecticut, former Bridgeport Mayor Joseph Ganim.

The racketeering and other charges each carry up to 20 years imprisonment and fines of up to $250,000. The companies are also being charged and face the forfeiture of their assets.

"The allegations in this indictment are extremely serious, as they involve alleged abuse within the highest levels of the government of the state of Connecticut," said Deputy U.S. Attorney John H. Durham.

The indictment also said the governor's office was where Ellef and Tomasso tried to shake down the CEO of an unidentified New Jersey company.

"While news of these indictments certainly were not unexpected, it does not make them any less shocking," said Gov. M. Jodi Rell, Rowland's former lieutenant who replaced him. "I am disgusted and I'm angry. If these allegations prove to be true, then I believe the harshest measures possible should be taken against the individuals and the companies involved."