Bridgeport Councilman Newton avoids jail time

Photo of Brian Lockhart

BRIDGEPORT — Nearly seven years after he was arrested on campaign finance fraud charges, storied politician Ernie Newton’s latest legal battle drew to a close Wednesday, and he walked away a — mostly — free man.

“It’s over,” Newton insisted to Hearst Connecticut Media after receiving an 18-month suspended jail sentence in Hartford Superior Court. “No probation, no parole. I ain’t gotta report to nobody or no special conditions.”

John Stawicki, Newton’s public defender, said all his client has to do is be on his best behavior for the next year.

“It means he’s got basically 18 months, suspended, hanging over his head, and if no crimes are committed where a judge finds probable cause within one year, he’s done,” Stawicki said.

Newton, who had been facing six months in prison, added, “The thing was staying out of jail, brother.”

A former City Council president and state legislator, Newton was convicted in 2005 of corruption related to his state Senate position and spent five years in federal prison.

His latest run-in with the law was related to a failed 2012 legislative comeback. Newton’s campaign collected the small contributions needed for him to qualify for $80,550 from Connecticut’s clean elections public campaign grants program.

He was later arrested and accused of submitting five contribution cards of $100 apiece to meet the grant program’s threshold that were signed by five people who had not actually given that money.

Newton was convicted in January 2015 of campaign finance fraud with a sentence of six months in prison. He was allowed to remain free during his ultimately successful appeal to the state Supreme Court, whose justices in October 2017 unanimously ordered a new trial after reviewing the nuances of whether Newton’s jury had received proper instructions.

And the prospect of that new trial had been hanging over Newton’s head ever since, even as voters returned him two years ago to the City Council and as he took a caseworker job with the downtown-based Career Resources nonprofit, aiding other felons.

Newton ultimately pleaded guilty Wednesday to a trio of felony campaign finance violations — the same charges he was convicted of back in 2015. The jury at that time had acquitted him of witness tampering.

Despite his guilty plea, Newton maintained he had done nothing wrong, and that any money issues were the responsibility of his 2012 campaign staff.

“I’ll take the responsibility,” he said. “That’s what (the court) is saying — that a candidate is responsible for whatever goes on in his campaign.”

But Kevin Shay, senior assistant state’s attorney for Middletown, on Thursday told Hearst Newton entered “a straight guilty plea” that he “knowingly and willfully violated state statute.”

“The court asked him if he agreed with those facts and accepted those facts, and he indicated ‘yes,’” Shay said.

Stawicki said he believes state prosecutors unfairly targeted Newton on the campaign finance issue.

“I see them going after Ernie and virtually nobody else,” the attorney said.

Shay said the case was referred by the State Elections Enforcement Commission and noted at the time he committed the campaign violations, Newton “was on federal probation for corruption charges (from) the last time he held office as a Senator.”

“This was never anything other than an attempt to uphold the integrity of the Citizen’s Election Program,” Shay said.

He added there were a variety of reasons the state chose not to re-try Newton, including the fact that the witnesses — the so-called “straw donors” who had supposedly given Newton’s campaign the contributions — had been difficult to locate five years ago.

“Many of them were indigent,” Shay said. “Add to that the fact everybody’s memories are five years older.”

Meanwhile, state legislators have gone back and forth on campaign finance law and whether the crimes Newton stood accused of should merit incarceration.

Based on those factors and others, Shay said, the practical question became, “How much more is the state going to spend trying to ensure Mr. Newton goes to jail for six months? ... These are never easy calls.”

Shay also noted that Newton and Stawicki argued Newton has been “engaged in some positive things in the community.”

Newton returned to the City Council in 2017 after winning that summer’s party primary, and is currently seeking another two-year-term. He does not have a primary challenger.

Newton is well-known for his colorful suits, wearing brimmed hats and for making Biblical references. After appearing in court Wednesday, he compared himself to Job — a religious figure who faced harsh trials in life — and also paraphrased a quote from Ecclesiastes.

“The race isn’t give to the swift — make sure you write this — nor the strong,” Newton told Hearst. “But to him that endures to the end.”