Hugh McQuaid Photo
Ernie Newton leaving Hartford Superior Court (Hugh McQuaid Photo)

Former state Sen. Ernie Newton plans to fight charges he falsely obtained thousands of dollars in public campaign funds, according to his lawyer. A Hartford Superior Court judge entered a proforma not guilty plea Thursday on his behalf.

Newton appeared in a crowded Hartford courtroom Thursday morning. Judge Joan Alexander called the former Bridgeport lawmaker’s case first and quickly entered his plea.

Newton served four years in federal prison after he was convicted of corruption charges in 2006. He had little to say to reporters after his arraignment Thursday on new charges related to his failed re-election campaign.

The Office of the Chief State’s Attorney charged Newton early this month with one count of first degree larceny, five counts of illegal campaign practices, and one count of tampering with a witness.

According to the arrest warrant affidavit, Newton submitted false documentation to obtain $80,550 from the state’s Citizens Election Program. The warrant says Newton was $500 short of the $15,000 in private contributions he needed to raise to qualify for the Citizens Election Program grant. Newton had five campaign workers sign cards stating they had contributed to the campaign when in fact they had not, the warrant states.

Attorney James Hardy represented Newton at his arraignment. His usual lawyer was working on another case. Hardy said Newton was eagerly looking forward to establishing his innocence.

“He has elected to stand trial before a jury,” Hardy said after the short court proceedings.

The judge continued the case until Jan. 31.

While Newton was tight-lipped following his arraignment, he had a lot to say in November when he testified at a legislative public hearing. He used five minutes to encourage the commission to support a plan to provide ex-felons with a “certificate of rehabilitation” to avoid discrimination.

He said he faced discrimination during his bid to take back his old senate seat. Newton lost the his Democratic primary to current Bridgeport Sen. Andres Ayala.

“I paid my debt to society, did everything I was supposed to. I decided to run for the senate again. Now, many people said ‘Oh, no. You can’t do that. That’s a no no,’” Newton said. “When a man or a woman has paid their debt to society, they ought to be free.”

Newton said the Citizens Election Program — the state’s public campaign finance system that prosecutors have since accused him of defrauding — discriminated against him when he applied for the matching grant.

“They didn’t want to give it to me. That shouldn’t have been. They should have looked at the law and said, ‘He met the requirements. He shouldn’t be discriminated against.’ Our system, as it stands today, is a system that’s been broken for a long time,” he said.

Newton said people do not come out of prison planning to commit more crimes. Rather, they come out hoping to be a productive member of society, he said. But they fall into their old habits when they can’t find a job or a place to live do to the stigma of being a felon, Newton said.

“What happens? We force them to do the wrong thing,” he said.