HARTFORD, Conn. (AP) — Nearly three years after finishing a prison sentence for misusing campaign money, former Bridgeport state Senator Ernest E. Newton II was charged Friday with falsely obtaining thousands of dollars in public funds to finance a comeback campaign for his old seat.
The colorful 56-year-old Newton, a Democrat who claimed last year’s unsuccessful campaign in the 23rd Senate District was about ‘‘redemption,’’ was arrested by inspectors from the Office of the Chief State’s Attorney for allegedly filing false documentation to obtain $80,550 from the publicly funded Citizens Election Program.
Newton’s attorney, Darnell Crosland, told The Associated Press on Friday night that his client denies the allegations and suggested Newton is being unfairly targeted because of his past. He said Newton purposely stayed away from the fundraising duties of his campaign to avoid the appearance of any impropriety.
‘‘Mr. Newton was out knocking on doors when this was going on, and we can prove that,’’ he said, adding his client was well-aware ‘‘the state was going to follow-up on Ernie Newton.’’
The arrest warrant claims Newton was short $500 of the $15,000 he needed to raise in small, private contributions to qualify for public campaign financing. Authorities accuse Newton of having five campaign workers sign cards falsely stating they contributed to the campaign. After receiving the allegedly falsified information, the state’s Elections Enforcement Commission released $80,550 in grant money to the Newton campaign.
When investigators began looking into the matter, Newton allegedly told one of those campaign workers not to speak with them, according to the warrant.
Crosland said Newton, who did not learn of his impending arrest until Thursday, does not know which workers the state’s attorney’s office is referring to and denies he told anyone to lie about contributing to the campaign. He also denies he told a campaign worker not to speak to the investigators.
Crosland also questioned why the state Elections Enforcement Commission approved the $80,550 grant if there were issues with any of the qualifying contributions, something he said the agency is supposed to review.
‘‘There was a rush to judgment, a rush to prosecute, based on nothing more than this man’s name is Ernie Newton,’’ Crosland said.
Newton, who still has seven months left of federal probation, was released Friday on a promise to appear in court on charges of first-degree larceny, illegal campaign practices and tampering with a witness. He is scheduled to be arraigned in Hartford Superior Court on Jan. 17, just a couple blocks away from the state Capitol building.
Newton served 17 years in the General Assembly before giving up his seat and pleading guilty in 2005 to accepting a $5,000 bribe. He served more than four years in prison and a halfway house after admitting he used campaign contributions for personal expenses and failed to report the improper income on his federal tax return.
In last year’s election, Newton won the endorsement of the district’s Democrats over incumbent state Sen. Edwin Gomes and state Rep. Andres Ayala, but ultimately lost the primary to Ayala, who then won the general election.
In an interview with the AP in May, Newton said he worked hard to get the endorsement by reaching out to the delegates.
‘‘I admitted to them that I made a mistake in my life, but the campaign is about redemption and opportunity for our city,’’ Newton said. ‘‘Everybody in the world has made mistakes in their life.’’
The charge of first-degree larceny carries a maximum sentence of up to 20 years in prison, while tampering with a witness is punishable by up to 10 years. Each of the five campaign finance charges carries a maximum sentence of five years in prison.