A special House committee opened hearings Tuesday into whether Republican Gov. John G. Rowland (search) should be impeached over his dealings with wealthy friends and businessmen with lucrative state contracts.

The hearings began with evidence that a wealthy businessman, who has received millions of dollars in lease payments and aid from the state, paid inflated rates to rent and later purchase the governor's Washington condominium.

Some committee members have called the deal one of the most damning matters facing the governor.

Rowland, who is also under federal investigation, is battling a subpoena that would force him to testify before the House Select Committee of Inquiry (search) in the first impeachment proceeding ever begun against a Connecticut governor. He had no comment about Tuesday's session.

In recent months, the governor has come under increasing pressure from Democrats and Republicans alike to resign. Among other things, lawmakers have been investigating Rowland for accepting a hot tub and other renovations at his summer cottage from friends and state contractors.

Rowland has said he has done nothing to compromise his office.

Steven Reich (search), the committee's lawyer, told the bipartisan panel his investigation was hampered by uncooperative witnesses, including the governor. Many invoked their constitutional right against self-incrimination.

"The federal criminal investigation has significantly impacted and limited our ability to gather information," Reich said.

Reich said his team focused on a handful of issues, including the condo deal, renovations to a cottage owned by Rowland, and his relationships with people who do business with the state.

The investigators also looked at the governor's personal finances.

"In six of the nine years we looked at, the governor and Mrs. Rowland spent more money than they received," Reich said. "The governor seems to us to have gotten by on a yearly basis through infusions of cash from various sources."

One investigator, Andrew Melnick, testified that Rowland rented out his Washington condo for $1,750 a month — three times the rent of similar condos in the building — to the niece of businessman and longtime friend Robert V. Matthews. Matthews' company wired the rent money to his niece, according to documents.

Rowland sold the condo in 1997 to an associate of Matthews for $68,500, more than double the sale price of a similar condo in the building. According to investigators, Matthews fronted the money for the sale, and the straw buyer, antiques dealer Wayne Pratt, pleaded guilty to tax charges in connection with the purchase.

In a sworn statement for the committee, Pratt said Matthews told him he could not personally buy the condo "because he was too personally involved and had given too much already."

Pratt also described a cell phone call that Matthews received in his presence about a year later from someone Pratt believed was Rowland. Pratt said in the statement that Matthews used a profanity to describe the caller, and "expressed surprise that `John' had requested money over a cellular telephone line."

Rowland's legal counsel, Ross Garber (search), asked a series of questions of Melnick to demonstrate that the governor's friendship with Matthews dated back years. Rowland's personal lawyer, William Dow, also questioned whether portions of Pratt's statement were consistent with the facts of the transaction contained in financial documents.

The committee has until June 30 to decide whether to recommend the three-term governor's impeachment. If the House votes for impeachment, Rowland would have to step aside for a Senate trial.

The hearings began a day after a judge refused to throw out a subpoena demanding Rowland's testimony — something the governor argues violates the government's separation of powers. He has appealed to the state Supreme Court.

If he is forced to testify, it would be the first time in U.S. history that a sitting governor was ordered to testify before a legislative body, lawyers for both sides said.

Reich said the committee decided not to pursue investigations of several issues surrounding the governor, including several real estate deals and allegations that staff members in the governor's office were pressured to contribute cash to buy gifts for the governor.

An electrical contractor's claims that he gave Rowland gifts of Cuban cigars and Dom Perignon also will not be presented because parts of his story could not be confirmed, Reich said.