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The Strange Case of Ernest Newton; Or What Would Plunkitt Have Done?

A political tipping point in the case against state Sen. Ernest Newton came when Warren Godbolt admitted under oath that he had given a bribe to an as yet unnamed senator -- who almost certainly was Newton.

A similar tipping point occurred in the case of former Gov. John Rowland when the governor admitted that he had intentionally misled the media in statements relating to his acceptance of gifts from state contractors.

After that admission, the political universe under Rowland’s feet was pitched at an angle that could only take him downwards. Following a grand jury empanelled to take evidence of criminal wrongdoing from the governor’s close associates, a relentless media barrage, the convening of a committee of impeachment, calls from leading Democrats and some few Republican that Rowland should resign -- and other such horrors – the governor slid down the angle and was deposited, following a plea bargain, into an out of state prison.

There is an evolution of opinion and positions in all such matters; what had been appropriate before the tipping point, may not be useful or prudent after the ground under Newton’s feet had been pitched 45 degrees to the horizon.

When Newton was first implicated in federal court early in August of taking a bribe in return for which he had helped to secure a $100,000 state grant for a non-profit agency headed by Godbolt, it was possible to argue plausibly that the senator should remain at his post in the legislature until reasonable men could in good conscience presume he was no longer fit to serve.

It is not necessary for legislators to wait upon a finding of guilt in a law court before they take action against a legislator or a governor: Rowland was not found guilty in court before the legislature formed a committee of inquiry, a preliminary step to impeachment. Impeachment proceedings and disciplinary measures available to the legislature are political measures, not legal proceedings.

Back in August, Rep. William Hamzy – then serving as the Republican Party chairmen, and clearly a partisan – thought Newton should be deprived of his legislative seat because multiple raids by the FBI on Newton’s home and office confirmed, as he said at the time, “There’s something big going on here.”

Senate President Pro Tem Donald Williams retorted that Newton was entitled to the presumption of innocence and rebuffed Hamzy’s demand. “I think we took the appropriate step when we met with Sen. Newton very early on,” Williams said, “and addressed the issue of his chairing the public safety committee (which Newton voluntarily surrendered.) That was the right decision to make early on, and we’re just waiting for the (FBI) investigation to conclude.”

Of course, Williams – who is a capable partisan leader of the senate – did not at that time have the advantage of a crystal ball. He could not have known that Godbolt later would be prosecuted and disgorge under oath exceedingly damaging information against Newton. Godbolt confessed to bribery; and nearly every impartial observer of court and investigatory data, including non-partisan objective reporters, is convinced that Newton was the recipient of the bribe.

But times and circumstances change; those who do not change with them fall under iron wheels. The times of patronage and power politics, they are a’changing. In some ways, both Rowland and Newton are the victims of times past, when who you knew rather than what you knew was a passport to felicity.

There was much in the old way of doing things to recommend them: George Washington Plunkitt, the New York ward boss and practitioner of “honest graft” immortalized in William Riordon’s “Plunkitt of Tammany Hall, may have been a goodhearted, slightly crooked street politician, but at least he was not a thumb sucking, Cotton Matherish, puritanical ethicist, living in fear that someone, somewhere in the political precinct might be happy.

State Rep. Arthur O’Neill, a Republican who served with distinction as co-chairman during Rowland’s impeachment hearing, has sensibly suggested that the legislature need not wait for the conclusion of a criminal proceeding to expel Newton; a “common understanding” or an "allegation that a member has behaved improperly" is all that is necessary.

O’Neill, not a rabid partisan, feels that should the legislature fail to hold such a hearing, embarrassing questions might be asked concerning the “more than two dozen legislators who have jobs similar to the one Newton claimed to have at Godbolt’s nonprofit.”

Rowland was hung on a gibbet before the public was treated to a trial and an impeachment that might have exposed the extent of corruption in both his and other administrations. And Newton will be hung on a gibbet before a full and impartial investigation exposes anyone’s delinquencies but his own.

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