Hugh McQuaid Photo
Ernie Newton, on left, outside Hartford Superior Court (Hugh McQuaid Photo)

HARTFORD — A jury began deliberating Thursday whether former Bridgeport Sen. Ernie Newton fraudulently obtained an $80,000 campaign finance grant by misreporting qualifying contributions in 2012.

Newton, a Democrat who previously resigned from his office and served time in federal prison for accepting a bribe, is fighting charges that he broke campaign finance law in a bid for his old seat.

The state has charged him with first-degree larceny, illegal campaign practices, and witness tampering. Prosecutors claim that Newton was in danger of falling short of qualifying for public financing so he had five campaign workers pretend to make 11th-hour contributions to put his campaign over the qualifying threshold. The money actually came from elsewhere, they said.

“Those [contribution] cards were fraudulent,” Assistant States Attorney Kevin Shay told the jury during closing arguments. “The money could have come from anywhere but the bottom line is the money didn’t come from those individuals.”

During the trial, Shay said the jury heard testimony from the campaign workers. They denied making the contributions and said they lacked the money to donate, he said.

Shay implied the money may have come from Charles Coviello, a supporter of Newton’s. The campaign cut Coviello a check roughly equal to the questionable contributions immediately after the public financing dollars were available, Shay said.

Newton’s lawyer, Darnell D. Crosland, tried to cast doubt on the testimony of the state’s witnesses.

“How much of the information that you heard can you rely on in making a beyond-a-reasonable-doubt determination that Mr. Newton should lose the freedoms that he enjoys,” he asked.

Crosland pointed to inconsistencies in the testimony of the campaign workers who denied donating. Some said Newton personally asked them to sign contribution cards, others said another campaign worker asked. Some witnesses reported being asked inside campaign headquarters, others said they were asked in the parking lot, Crosland said.

“All of the time, place and manner is inconsistent and we’re here [in court]? We’re here?” he asked.

Shay asked jurors whether they could imagine themselves mixing up such details almost two years after they occurred. He said the witnesses were consistent in recalling that Newton asked them to break the law.

“One thing they were all clear on — their boss, the candidate they went to work for, asked them to do something that wasn’t right that day. He asked them to do something that wasn’t true,” he said.

Crosland insisted the jury should scrutinize the campaign workers. He brought in a poster board displaying their names as well as a photo of former judges on the television show “American Idol.” He started to tell the jury how Simon Cowell, a former personality on the show, would assess the witnesses at Newton’s trial. The state objected.

“Oh my God, really?” Crosland asked.

“Yes, really,” Judge Julia D. Dewey said, telling Crosland to find another way to make his point.

Crosland was chided several times Thursday by Dewey for referring during closing arguments to people or things that were not entered as evidence in the trial or conversations that occurred outside the presence of the jury. At least twice she ordered him to take down Powerpoint slides making such references.

“Counsel. What was not discussed in front of the jury is not proper for your argument,” a frustrated sounding Dewey told Crosland at one point.

Newton’s criminal history is among the elements of the case that have not been referred to during trial or discussed in front of the jury. Before the trial began, the court accepted a motion by Crosland barring the state from making mention of Newton’s past conviction.

However, according to the Hartford Courant, Dewey scrapped that rule on Tuesday as a result of character testimony given by two defense witnesses. But prosecutors declined to bring up Newton’s past before resting their case.

The jury did not reach a verdict Thursday and will resume deliberation Friday. The jury also requested the opportunity to review the testimony of Vincent Derr, a witnesses and former campaign worker who testified to signing a contribution card for Newton.