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Newton optimistic, but still embroiled in legal woes

December 6, 2018

BRIDGEPORT — Ernie Newton was his usual optimistic self leaving state Superior Court in Hartford Wednesday.

The state Supreme Court in October ordered a new trial for Newton, who nearly four years earlier was convicted of campaign financing fraud with a sentence of six months in prison. So on Wednesday a judge formalized the justices’ decision, and now Newton, a Democrat, waits to learn whether the Office of the Chief State’s Attorney will retry him or drop the case.

The next court date is Jan. 23.

“I didn’t get the feeling the state wanted to retry it,” Newton, who has been allowed to remain free while appealing his conviction, said afterward. “I’m hoping it should be all over by then (Jan. 23).”

But in an interview Thursday morning, Joseph Stawicki, Newton’s public defender, detailed just how complicated his client’s legal situation is: “It’s not as simple as that.”

Stawicki said he did not know how the Chief State’s Attorney plans to proceed, adding, “Personally I think it’s a waste of our state resources” to move forward with a do over to try to successfully convict Newton.

“This isn’t a murder or robbery case,” Stawicki said. “It’s a case involving politics.”

But Stawicki also noted another problem for Newton that stems from the latter’s 2005 corruption conviction while a state Senator and his subsequent imprisonment. By Jan. 6, 2015 when a jury found Newton guilty of three of six campaign finance fraud-related charges involving his failed 2012 bid to return to the legislature, Newton had been out of jail for five years.

But Newton was still on probation for that 2005 corruption conviction for taking a $5,000 bribe to push through a state grant, diverting $40,682 in campaign contributions to himself and others and failing to report the money on his income tax return. Newton’s 2015 conviction violated that probation.

Stawicki said that, hypothetically, were the state to now drop its charges against Newton, “That’s good news.” Unfortunately, he added, it does not make the probation violation go away and Newton could still get “hammered in federal court.”

“There has to be some type of resolution that involves the state and federal (law enforcement),” Stawicki said.

Newton has a different lawyer — privage attorney Darnell Crosland — handling his federal probation issue. Crosland could not immediately be reached for comment Thursday morning.

While attempting a political comeback in 2012, Newton’s campaign at that time collected the small contributions needed for him to qualify for $80,550 from Connecticut’s so-called clean elections public campaign grants program.

He was subsequently accused of submitting five contribution cards of $100 a piece to meet the grant program’s threshold that were signed by five people who had not actually given that money. As explained in October’s Supreme Court ruling, Newton’s campaign, faced in 2012 with a $490 shortfall, suddenly received $500 and “either on his own or through the assistance of another, (Newton) had approached the five signors and instructed them to sign the ($100 contribution) cards (and) assured them that they would not be required to donate money to the campaign.”

Newton, following a state investigation, was charged with five counts of illegal practices in campaign financing, two counts of first-degree larceny and one count of witness tampering. On Jan. 16, 2015, a jury found Newton guilty of three of the charges and acquitted him of witness tampering. Jurors were unable to reach a verdict on the remaining charges.

While his appeal to the state Supreme Court has been pending, Newton successfully ran for Bridgeport City Council representing his East End neighborhood and was hired by the local nonprofit Career Resources Inc. to help clients with criminal records seek employment.

Asked Thursday if he shared Newton’s optimism that his legal issues will soon be behind him, Stawicki said, “You always have to be optimistic until the roof falls in.”

But Stawicki also noted that the state seems particularly focused on trying to punish Bridgeport politicians.

“I lived in Bridgeport for a few years and for some reason Bridgeport seems to be a target,” Stawicki said.

The city does have a reputation for dirty politics thanks to Newton and also Mayor Joe Ganim, whose first administration ended in 2003 with his own corruption conviction. Voters forgave Ganim and re-elected him in 2015. He tried unsuccessfully this year to run for governor, losing the Democratic primary to Ned Lamont.

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