Former state Sen. Ernest E. Newton II, D-Bridgeport, a convicted felon who attempted a political comeback in 2012, was arrested Friday and charged with committing fraud to obtain $80,550 in public financing for his unsuccessful bid to return to the Connecticut General Assembly.
Newton, 56, who lost a three-way Democratic primary for the state Senate in August, was charged with first-degree larceny, five counts of illegal campaign practices and one count of tampering with a witness. He was released on bond and will be arraigned in Harford Superior Court Jan. 17.
He is accused of persuading five campaign workers to sign statements falsely attesting that they had made a qualifying campaign contribution to his campaign. Under the state’s campaign finance law, Newton needed to raise $15,000 in donations of no more than $100 each to qualify for a public grant of $80,550.
Authorities say Newton was short five $100 contributions in July, when he was preparing for a difficult primary against the incumbent, state Sen. Edwin Gomes, and state Rep. Andres Ayala. The primary and general election were won by Ayala, who will be sworn in next week.
The witness-tampering charge, according to authorities, stems from Newton’s asking one of the five not to talk to investigators. None of the five straw donors were charged.
Newton was arrested after an investigation by the State Elections Enforcement Commission and the Office of the Chief State’s Attorney. He surrended to inspectors from the chief state’s attorney’s office at the State Police barracks in Bethany.
He is the first politician to face prosecution for fraud in the state’s public financing program, which was approved by the General Assembly in 2005, a year after the resignation and corruption conviction of Gov. John G. Rowland.
Newton did not respond to a request for comment.
His lawyer, Darnell Crosland of Stamford, denied that Newton had committed fraud, saying that Newton had kept his distance from fundraising because of his prior criminal troubles. He said that State Elections Enforcement Commission officials had been calling Newton’s contributors, verifying their donations.
He questioned if the officials were trying to discourage contributions.
“In Ernie’s case, they were extra vigilant,” Crosland said. Referring to contributors, he said, “They were told Ernie is a felon.”
In 2005, Newton resigned after pleading guilty in federal court to bribery, tax evasion and mail fraud. He was sentenced in 2006 to five years in prison, to be followed by three years of supervised release, during which time “the defendant shall not commit another federal, state or local offense.”
He served 4½ years in prison and a halfway house.
In his sentencing order, U.S. District Judge Alan H. Nevas wrote that Newton’s crime was brazen, committed at a time when other public officials faced high-profile investigations. His sentence exceeded the penalty in sentencing guidelines.
“The fact that the defendant brazenly continued his corrupt conduct at the same time other politicians in this state were being investigated and prosecuted for the same conduct demonstrates to me that a more severe sentence is necessary to deter such conduct in the future, especially if the defendant is still considering re-entering politics ‘when this is all over’ as he publicly stated at the time he entered his guilty plea,” Nevas wrote.
Newton’s campaign pitch last summer was straightforward: He was worthy of redemption, and Bridgeport has worsened in his absence from public office.
“I was away for seven years, and you all were in office. And you still haven’t done nothing,” Newton said during a debate in July. “This election is about leadership and redemption. So I say to you today, just look at the record.”
Newton, who never lost his habit of referring to himself in the third person, offered himself as a symbol of renewal, of hope in a city that constantly struggles for hope and renewal.
“Folks say, ‘Ernie, you are a felon, you ought not run.’ But I proved them wrong,” he said, “because if everybody who comes out of prison stands up and tries to put their best foot forward, we should put our arms around them.”
Follow Mark Pazniokas on Twitter @CTMirrorPaz