HARTFORD – In a court proceeding that lasted about one minute, former state Senator Ernie Newton pleaded not guilty Thursday on seven charges of campaign finance violations.
The plea was entered on behalf of Newton, who never uttered the words “not guilty.”
In fact, the only words that Newton said during the proceeding Thursday morning were “good morning, your honor.”
Superior Court Judge Joan K. Alexander announced that Newton was entering the not guilty plea and requesting a jury trial in the case.
Wearing one of his trademark suits, Newton stood next to his attorney, James Hardy, during the brief proceeding. Hardy was standing in for Newton’s regular attorney, who is currently handling a murder trial in Stamford.
Before Thursday’s court session began, Newton was sitting on the aisle in the next-to-last row in the back of the courtroom on the third floor. He told Capitol Watch that he could not comment on the case and would not be speaking publicly on the matter until the case is over.
“We don’t have any comment,” Hardy said outside the courtroom. “There was no action on this matter. … He has elected to stand trial with a jury.”
Hardy added that Newton will vigorously pursue his defense.
“He is, in fact, not guilty,” Hardy said.
The case was continued until January 31 in state Superior Court in Hartford.
Newton, 56, of 190 Read St. in Bridgeport, was charged on a warrant with a felony count of first-degree larceny, a felony count of tampering with a witness, and five counts of illegal campaign practices.
His 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. 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 said.
After receiving the false documentation that Newton had raised the necessary $15,000, the State Elections Enforcement Commission sent more than $80,000 to the Newton campaign in July 2012
“When one of the five individuals who signed contribution cards was contacted by SEEC investigators, Newton told her not to talk to them,” the prosecutor’s office said.
Newton is free on a promise to appear in court, and he walked out of the front door of the courthouse on Lafayette Street as a series of TV camera operators and photographers followed him down the street.
Wearing a fedora with a feather in it, Newton declined to answer any questions from the reporters who chased him down the street.
First-degree larceny is a felony that carries a maximum sentence of 20 years in prison. The count of tampering with a witness carries a maximum of 10 years in prison, while all five finance counts have maximum 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.
Known as one of the most colorful characters at the state Capitol in his heyday, Newton had called himself “the Moses of my people” during a defiant 2005 speech before pleading guilty to three felonies for accepting a bribe, evading taxes, and pilfering campaign contributions for personal expenses.
Photo of former state Sen. Ernie Newton with his attorney, James Hardy, following the court proceeding at state Superior Court in Hartford on January 17, 2013.