Former Sen. Ernie Newton’s most recent arrest has motivated Sen. Ed Meyer, D-Guilford, to propose legislation prohibiting public officials convicted of corruption from using public campaign funds
Newton, a Democrat who once represented Bridgeport, has pleaded not guilty to charges he falsely obtained thousands of dollars in public campaign funds in his failed attempt to take back his seat. He’s also professed his innocence through a lawyer.
But under Meyer’s proposal, Newton never would have been able to apply for the funds in the first place.
That’s because Newton spent four years in federal prison after being sentenced on charges of accepting a $5,000 bribe, evading taxes, and pilfering campaign contributions to pay for car repairs, personal cellphone calls, and other expenses
“Public officials who commit crimes against the state should lose their benefits from the state” Meyer said in phone interview Wednesday evening.
It’s an idea he’s been toying with for awhile. Meyer has previously proposed legislation that would have prevented public officials convicted of corruption from receiving a state pension. The bill eventually passed but only after it was weakened. Ultimately, it only gave the attorney general the ability to petition a judge to take away someone’s pension.
But when his former colleague was arrested again in early January on accusations he misused the state’s public campaign financing fund in an effort to get re-elected, Meyer said he was motivated to look at the issue again.
After Newton lost his Democratic primary race, he traveled to the state Capitol to tell lawmakers that the campaign fund staff discriminated against him as an ex-felon when he applied for the 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,” Newton said in November.
Meyer said Newton’s new charges “really raised [his] hackles.”
“Ernie Newton snookered us,” he said. “He was convicted of serious felonies in 2005 then he comes back and says he’s redeemed.”
Meyer said the charges Newton faces now represent serious perjury and fraud, which took $86,000 from taxpayers. But Meyer said he also personally lied to him and a number of his colleagues. Back before Newton was convicted, Meyer said he had a private conversation with him and suggested he resign.
“He said ‘BS. I didn’t do anything wrong.’ He said he hadn’t taken bribes or engaged in tax delinquency. It was less than a month after that that he pled guilty,” Meyer said. “He left with a bad reputation not just because of the crimes he committed but the lies he told us.”
It’s unclear if there will be much support for Meyer’s proposal in the legislature. A spokesman for Senate President Donald Williams said he’s interested in hearing thoughts on the bill, but declined to speculate about support for the measure.
Senate Minority Leader John McKinney, R-Fairfield, suggested it might be unconstitutional. That’s not to say McKinney approves of the public campaign financing system in the first place.
“We’ve always been opposed to spending tens of millions of taxpayer dollars on our campaigns as people are losing their jobs, on unemployment, and paying more in taxes. It doesn’t make sense to spend that money on campaigns when it can be better spent on the people of Connecticut,” he said.
Still, McKinney said depriving one class of people — in this case people convicted of corruption — access to grants available to other qualified candidates probably violates their constitutional rights.
Instead, McKinney suggested something he’s been advocating for years: a bipartisan ethics committee capable of investigating and, if necessary, doling out punishment to culpable lawmakers. He credited Meyer for supporting the idea in the past, saying he’s the only Democrat in the Senate to do so.
“I think that would be a better punishment and a better example to the people of Connecticut,” he said.