Former state Sen. Ernest E. Newton, a colorful, quotable, three-time convicted felon who served nearly five years in federal prison on corruption charges, was arrested again Friday on charges of campaign finance fraud in his latest election campaign.
Newton was charged with “falsely obtaining thousands of dollars in public funds” during his August 2012 Democratic primary bid against incumbent Sen. Edwin Gomes in Bridgeport, according to the Chief State’s Attorney’s office. Newton lost the three-way election to state Rep. Andres Ayala, who will be sworn in next week as Bridgeport’s newest senator.
Newton, 56, of 190 Read Street in Bridgeport, was charged on a warrant with a felony count of first-degree larceny, one felony count of tampering with a witness, and five counts of illegal campaign practices.
Friday’s arrest came after a detailed investigation by the State Elections Enforcement Commission and the Statewide Prosecution Bureau in the Office of the Chief State’s Attorney.
Known as one of the most colorful characters at the state Capitol, Newton had called himself “the Moses of my people” during a defiant speech in the pouring rain in Bridgeport in 2005 before later pleading guilty to three felonies for taking a bribe, evading taxes, and pilfering campaign funds for personal use.
In an arrest warrant affidavit, prosecutors said that Newton “submitted false documentation to obtain $80,550 from the state’s Citizens Election Program” that funded his campaign in the three-way race.
Under the law, candidates for state Senate are required to raise $15,000 in private funds in order to qualify for the public money. But Newton raised only $14,500. At that point, ”Newton had five campaign workers sign cards stating they had contributed to the campaign when in fact they had not,” the chief state’s attorney’s office says.
The State Elections Enforcement Commission sent more than $80,000 to the Newtown campaign in July 2012 after receiving the false documentation that he had raised the necessary $15,000.
“When one of the five individuals who signed contribution cards was contacted by SEEC investigators, Newton told her not to talk to them,” the chief state’s attorney’s office said.
Newton arrived Friday at the Connecticut state police barracks in Bethany, where he was arrested by inspectors from the Chief State’s Attorney’s office. He signed a promise to appear, and his arraignment was set for January 17 at state Superior Court in Hartford.
First-degree larceny is a felony that carries a maximum sentence of 20 years in prison. The felony count of tampering with a witness carries a maximum of 10 years in prison, while all five finance counts have terms of five years each.
Newton had shocked much of the Connecticut political world in May 2012 when he won the Democratic Party’s convention endorsement in the race — part of the long road back for the convicted felon who resigned his seat in disgrace and pleaded guilty in 2005.
That launched his race for a bruising battle of bare-knuckle Bridgeport politics against the 76-year-old Gomes and Ayala. Gomes, a pro-union Democrat, has served in the Senate since Newton’s departure, while Ayala has served in the state House of Representatives since 2007.
Not only was Newton in the race, but he received more than $80,000 in public money under state law to run his campaign. Some residents were outraged that Newton was receiving public financing, but he said he had the same total as his two opponents who have also received public money after raising the necessary $15,000 in private contributions. He was the first convicted felon to win a major party’s convention endorsement for the state Senate since the state legislature changed the law regarding felons in 2001.
Newton had heard all of the criticisms about being a felon, about betraying his community and about how he would be unable to work with his colleagues in Hartford after failing to tell them the full story when he was being investigated by federal prosecutors and the FBI.
Yet Newton remained as defiant as ever.
“People in Hartford can say what they want because they can’t vote for me,” Newton said in an interview with The Courant at the time. “I didn’t call all my friends in Hartford to help me raise $15,000 [to qualify for public financing]. I did it with my people. I’m indebted to the people who put me in office. No lobbyists, no leadership, no union can say we helped you raise $15,000 — which makes me a free person.”
With his fiery speeches, Newton was known to some as more of a preacher than a politician, often peppering his quotes with references to God and the Bible. He said the most important thing that constituents said to him after he returned from prison was that they had prayed for him.
“People say, ‘How can an ex-felon run? He broke the trust of the people,’” Newton said. “Well, wait a minute. Jesus had 12 disciples. They was always breaking the commandments, but Jesus always forgave them.
“Think about it. They weren’t perfect people. I’ll give you Peter. Jesus had to rebuke Peter because Peter was out of control — cussing, cut a man’s ear off. C’mon. The thing I’m trying to say is nobody in this world is perfect.”
But Gomes’s campaign manager, Marty Dunleavy, ripped into Newton during the primary campaign for saying that he was “the Moses of my people” before resigning from office and being sentenced to prison.
“He’s more like the Judas of his people, selling them out for pieces of silver,” Dunleavy told The Courant. “Statements like that that should not go unchallenged.”
Dunleavy said it was “a disgusting idea” that Newton referred to himself as the Moses of his people.
He added that Newton’s own actions should prevent him from returning to public life.
“You can’t be the rooster in the henhouse again,” Dunleavy said.
Staff photos by Hartford Courant photographer Steve Dunn in Bridgeport during the state Senate primary campaign in 2012.