Suffolk DA Spota finally faces race for his job

Suffolk County District Attorney Thomas Spota. (Jan. 29, Suffolk County District Attorney Thomas Spota. (Jan. 29, 2013) Photo Credit: Randee Daddona

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After 12 years in office, Suffolk District Attorney Thomas Spota finally has a race for re-election and a foe to face.

As of now, only Republican voters will get to choose who should be the county's top prosecutor in the Sept. 10 primary between GOP challenger Raymond Perini and cross-endorsed Democrat Spota. Until Perini filed petitions, Spota, who also had a major and minor party backing in 2005 and 2009, was on his way to a third re-election with no opposition.

But if Perini, a criminal lawyer from Huntington, can win the GOP primary in September, then voters across the county would get the same choice in a November rematch, in which Spota would have three ballot lines to Perini's one.

That's the simple plot line for the impending DA's election. But the contest has the potential to take more twists and turns than a Great Adventure roller coaster ride before November's Election Day. The largest issue -- still in litigation -- is whether Spota can legally seek a fourth term.

"This is like something out of Hollywood," said Paul Sabatino, a onetime county executive chief deputy and legislative counsel. "This is a race that could undergo all sorts of permutations -- all unintended consequences of a cross-endorsement deal."

Perini, onetime head of the DA's narcotics squad who once worked with Spota, initially said he would not run if his former colleague was on the ballot. Then Supreme Court Justice Ralph Gazzillo late last year ruled Suffolk's 12-year term limit law did not apply to Spota because his job was proscribed in the state constitution. Gazzillo also blocked Peter Nichols, a local civic leader from intervening, preventing him from seeking an appeal.

Perini maintains he only filed petitions as a candidate because the Democrats in charge of the county and Spota's lawyer for months stalled efforts to appeal the term limits ruling. Perini said voters deserve a final ruling from the Court of Appeal on whether the law is constitutional.

In the meantime, the Appellate Division has agreed to consider whether Nichols has a right to appeal the term-limit decision. And in a surprise move, Perini, who has standing as a candidate, opened a second front in the legal battle, challenging Spota's eligibility at the elections board and in court, where he expects expedited treatment as an elections case. Perini's suit goes before State Supreme Court Justice W. Gerard Asher, a Huntington Republican, Aug. 1.

While the courts mull, Perini, who has $126,000 on hand, said he will campaign aggressively, attacking Spota's legal battle to overturn the term-limit law that voters backed and cross-endorsement deals that have left Republicans no DA choice since 2001. Perini added that GOP voters will pick "a real Republican" over Spota, who defected from the GOP to run for DA. "No one likes people who switch parties for personal gain," he said.

Backers say Spota, who has $657,769 in his coffers, is far better known, has a proven record of fighting corruption, drugs and gangs, and had more than 10,000 GOP signatures on petitions -- more than twice the 4,200 Perini amassed.

Richard Schaffer, Suffolk Democratic chairman, said he's "100 percent confident" Spota will win the term-limit case, and said GOP primaries in Smithtown, Huntington and Brookhaven will help drive GOP votes for Spota. "I'm sure the Republican organization will prove itself and deliver the vote on primary night," said Schaffer.

Should the term limit be upheld, all the parties would be scrambling to find replacement candidates. "The landscape could change quite substantially," said John Jay LaValle, the Suffolk GOP chairman, who backs Spota. He said it is unclear what candidates might emerge if court rules at the last minute. "People who might normally come forward may not in a short time frame, if they can't put the resources together," he said.

That could leave Perini, who says he's fighting to give voters a choice, as the only one left standing by primary day. But, Perini said, "That's not by my doing. That's something Schaffer and the Democrats brought on themselves with all their delays."

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