Thursday, September 22, 2005

Ernest Newton's Plea Bargain

Sen. Ernest Newton, the fourth ranking Democrat in the state legislature, pleaded guilty in a Bridgeport court on a charge he received a bribe. Prosecutors also charged that Newton used campaign contributions as a “private piggy bank.”

The plea bargain surprised no one who had been following the story.

Very early on, newspapers reported that prosecutors had in their hot little hands reams of recorded conversations allegedly showing that Newton had solicited and then accepted a bribe from Warren Godbolt, the director of Progressive Training Associates, in return for which the senator secured a grant for Godbolt’s non-profit agency.

Connecticut is wearily familiar with such prosecutions, and charges of this kind are not lightly made. That an incumbent politician, safe in his political sinecure, would be sorely tempted to use campaign funds for private purposes should surprise no one who believes in the frailty of human nature. Now that ethicists have made a concerted effort to clean up political precincts,” errant behaviors winked at in the bad old days of Tammany Hall have been criminalized -- and this presents any number of problems.

One problem is related to the ease of prosecution. RICO legislation has facilitated the prosecution of political crimes, even though the architect of the legislation, a Massachusetts professor, had warned that the legislation was not designed for use in political prosecutions.

As such prosecutions become more effortless, the question arises: Who shall face investigation and possible prosecution?

In an op-ed article in a Hartford newspaper, Rep. Arthur O’Neill, who served with distinction on a panel charged with recommending the impeachment of former Gov. John Rowland, applied some moral pressure on leading Democrat legislators to begin an investigation of Newton.

O’Neill wrote that “failure by the Senate to investigate Newton would imply either a double standard or a fear of what such an investigation might expose. According to ethics filings, there are more than two dozen legislators who have jobs similar to the one Newton claimed to have at Godbolt's nonprofit. These nonprofit and for-profit entities derive significant portions of their income from the state, money legislators must approve. Questions may be asked about other projects funded through the same process as the Godbolt grant.”

So then, circumstances similar to those that ensnared Newton also brood over more than two dozen legislators who have jobs like the one the senator claimed to have at Godbolt’s nonprofit. And two dozen legislators represent a sizable load of frail human nature. Is state prosecutor Kevin O’Connor investigating them? And if not, why not?

O’Conner has said that prosecutors stumbled upon Newton’s irregularities in the course of an investigation that targeted former Bridgeport mayor Joe Ganim. The lit fuse of corruption led irregularly from Ganim to Newton. It is possible that the fuse is connected to other powder kegs. In their investigation of Newton, is it possible that state prosecutors had stumbled upon incriminating facts that might lead to an investigation of the more than two dozen legislators who have jobs similar to Newton’s?

Newton has claimed that his ethnicity had caused prosecutorial lightening bolts to strike only him, a view derided by politicians and commentators alike who assert correctly that politicians now jailed for corrupt activity -- including former Gov. John Rowland, Ganim and former Mayor of Waterbury Phillip Giordano – do not belong to Newton’s ethnic grouping. But Newton’s view might be partially vindicated if it could be shown that none or few of the more than two dozen uninvestigated legislators mentioned in O’Neill’s opinion piece were African Americans.

Justice requires an impartial application of the laws -- which is why Lady Justice wears a blindfold. And if two dozen other legislators similarly situated escape close scrutiny, Newton may well ask: Why me? Why not them?

In political prosecutions, plea bargains offered by prosecutors and assented to in secret corners always will resemble Star Chamber proceedings. In open public proceedings – trials, impeachments and the like – justice wears the blindfold, and one may be relatively certain that the truth will emerge in the adversarial process; in private plea bargain agreements, the public is blindfolded and asked to trust in the virtue of prosecutors.

And when the truth is not tried in open proceedings, those who have been forced to plea under threat always will be able to claim, however implausibility, that they had been unjustly sent up the river.

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