Ernest Newton arrested on campaign finance fraud charges
Ernie Newton pauses during an interview at the Bridgeport Innovaton Center, in Bridgeport, Conn., May 22nd, 2012. Newton has received the Democratic endorsement to run for the 23rd state Senate seat.
BRIDGEPORT -- Disgraced former state Sen. Ernest E. Newton II found himself back in trouble with the law Friday after he was busted on campaign finance fraud charges stemming from his failed bid to regain his old seat in Hartford.
And the ex-con from the city's East End could soon find himself heading back to prison as well for violating the terms of supervised release that came from his 2005 corruption conviction.
Newton, 56, of 190 Read St., is accused of falsifying documents to obtain $80,550 from the state's Citizen Election Program to fund his campaign for the 23rd District State Senate seat last year.
Reached by phone Friday night, Newton said only, "It's not what you all are writing, trust me," before referring questions to his lawyer, Darnell D. Crosland, of Stamford. Crosland said the claims that Newton stole money "can't be farther from the truth. He didn't steal any money, he applied for money, they approved it and he ran a legitimate campaign."
Crosland said typically if indiscretions are found during a campaign audit, the state elections board will levy fines or civil remedies.
"We don't understand why Mr. Newton is being dragged before the criminal courts under these circumstances," Crosland said, adding that Newton's past experience made him "vigilant" about making sure everything was done above the board.
Crosland said Newton didn't write a single check to himself or his family members, claiming "every dime" went to the campaign.
Newton was endorsed for his old Senate seat by the Bridgeport Democratic Town Committee, but lost a primary in August to eventual general election winner Andres Ayala Jr.
He turned himself in at the State Police Troop I barracks in Bethany on Friday to inspectors from the Chief State's Attorney's Office and was charged with first-degree larceny, five counts of illegal campaign practices and tampering with a witness. He was released without bond.
According to the arrest warrant affidavit, Newton was $500 short of the $15,000 he needed to raise in private contributions to qualify for the public funds. To make up the difference, Newton is accused of having five campaign workers sign cards stating they had contributed to the campaign, when they actually had not done so.
After Newton's campaign submitted the documents to the state Elections Enforcement Commission, he got the grant.
Newton is also accused of telling one of the campaign workers not to talk to the EEC after investigators contacted her, resulting in the witness tampering charge.
According to Crosland, Newton's attorney, the five employees were "disgruntled" about payments they were supposed to receive, but he said he wasn't sure if that motivated them to make the allegations against Newton.
Stephen Cashman, who until recently was chairman of the EEC, cast an unusual vote against releasing the grant money to Newton when the group convened in July.
Cashman said at the time he had not known of any concerns about Newton's application.
"I simply did not think, based on the prior history, that it was appropriate for us to hand out taxpayers' money to somebody who had already gone to prison for political corruption," Cashman said.
He said that afterward information was brought to elections enforcement officials' attention that required an immediate investigation of Newton.
"In the end, the information we uncovered we turned over to the Office of the Chief State's Attorney," said Cashman, who added he knew an arrest warrant for Newton had been sought.
Cashman said, in part, because of the Newton case, the commission is preparing to submit to the General Assembly a proposal tightening the restrictions on the campaign finance grants. Specifically, Cashman said applicants who, like Newton or former Bridgeport Mayor Joseph P. Ganim, were convicted of abusing public office could be disqualified.
"They're free to run for office," Cashman said. "Just raise (their) own funds."
On top of the investigation, Newton's campaign is part of an ongoing audit being conducted by elections officials.
The elections enforcement commission is required to examine how half of the campaigns participating in Connecticut's public financing program spent their money. The Newton race, officials said in November, was, like the others, chosen at random.
The campaign for State Senate seemed to be a road to redemption for Newton, who in 2005 admitted to taking a $5,000 bribe, diverting more than $40,000 in campaign contributions to himself and filing false income tax returns, derailing a 17-year career in the legislature.
Martin Dunleavy, a veteran of numerous local, state and national Democratic campaigns, was campaign manager for Ed Gomes, the incumbent who sought to retain the seat.
"It's a said day for Ernie and Bridgeport politics," Dunleavy said Friday night. "I genuinely like the guy. He's a lovable rogue, but he's a rogue."
Dunleavy said Newton's arrest, unfortunately, will continue to cast a negative light on Bridgeport politics.
"The city has had too many allegations of corruption, too many cases of proven corruption and it's going to continue to scare business and investment, and the city's a wonderful place with wonderful people," Dunleavy said.
Dunleavy said if Newton had not qualified for the state grants, the outcome of the three-way primary with incumbent Ed Gomes, also black, and ultimate winner Andres Ayala, who is Latino, might have been different.
"Ernie was able to mount a very, very effective street campaign and finished in second place," Dunleavy said. "He was able to get his message out (that) Ed is old and tired and wasn't up to the job. ... It effectively split the African-American vote having Ernie be a viable candidate."
Bridgeport Mayor Bill Finch said in a statement he is "truly saddened by this latest arrest," adding he "told (Newton) privately and stated publicly that I didn't think his candidacy was in the best interest for him or for Bridgeport."
Kevin Muhammad, a colleague of Newton's and an activist in Bridgeport, said the African-American community was "outraged" by the arrest.
"I think this should be a civil suit. I don't think it's worthy of being arrested and treated like a common criminal," said Muhammad, who is president of the Connecticut African American Emancipation Challenge.
Muhammad said since being released from prison Newton has served as an example for other felons, particularly black men, who feel they have been disenfranchised, even though they paid their debt to society.
"We really think it's meant to embarrass him and also discourage others that may try to come out and be a part of the democratic process. And we have that right as Americans," Muhammad said.
Newton will be arraigned Jan. 17 at state Superior Court in Hartford.
The first-degree larceny charge carries a maximum sentence of 20 years in prison, tampering with a witness could result in up to 10 years in prison and each campaign finance count carries a maximum prison term of five years.
Newton served three years in prison and was released to a halfway house in 2010. He is finishing out a three-year supervised release term.
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