The men vying to be elected Suffolk County district attorney, incumbent Thomas Spota and his challenger Raymond Perini, played largely forgotten roles in county law enforcement's most turbulent era.
In the late 1980s, state and local investigations probed widespread misconduct, much of it criminal, in the district attorney's office and county police department. Supporters of the investigations said systemic failures were being exposed. Those under scrutiny described the inquiries as witch hunts based on the bogus claims of malcontents.
State investigators accused Perini of being "irresponsible and grossly unprofessional" as head of narcotics prosecutions in the district attorney's office. He left the office in 1989 before the New York State Commission of Investigation released a report that found he'd condoned illegal wiretaps and other abuses of power. A special prosecutor found illegal wiretaps happened on his watch, but no evidence to corroborate claims that Perini knew of the activity. He was never charged with a crime.
Spota, who faces Perini in a GOP primary Tuesday, had already left the district attorney's office in 1982 to run a private law practice by the time the investigations were underway. Unlike Perini, Spota was not a focus for investigators. Rather, he was a pugnacious defender of lawmen hauled before the state commission, which in its 1989 report presented a disturbing picture of county law enforcement.
Though personally never accused of misconduct, Spota and his law firm were named in an alleged kickback scheme involving referrals in drunken-driving cases. Two county police officers said that an assistant district attorney had told them that if they sent drunken-driving defendants his way, he would refer them to Spota's law firm and "we would all make some money."
Homicide cases probed
The state commission noted a history of Suffolk prosecutors relying on improperly obtained confessions in homicide cases. Left unsaid: Spota was in charge of homicide prosecutions during about four years of the period of concern to investigators.
The investigations followed a county court judge's appeal to then-Gov. Mario Cuomo in 1985. Judge Stuart Namm had presided over two murder trials that year during which he said prosecutors and cops had committed flagrant perjury and evidence tampering. Killers had gone free, he feared, because jurors justifiably had no confidence in the job done by law enforcement.
The probes Namm's letter unleashed expanded, with investigators exploring misconduct as far back as the 1970s. Many in law enforcement claimed they were being targeted unfairly. A 1987 report by the Suffolk Legislature's Public Safety Committee, held after spirited public hearings, noted "fear of retaliation and retribution" within law enforcement that discouraged people from testifying. Perini and an officer under scrutiny once searched each other for wires before talking.
The State Commission of Investigation, now defunct, found in a critical 1989 report that Perini:
Used a teenage informant in drug prosecutions despite "overwhelming evidence" of his unreliability.
Approved a bogus letter that claimed the son of a chief of detectives who faced a drug charge had aided law enforcement as an informant. Based on the fabrication, the son was able to plead guilty to a less serious charge.
Condoned illegal phone taps.
In a recent interview, Perini said he never relied solely on the informant but counted on the word of police. He had no reason to think the letter involving the detective's son was phony, he said. As for allegations that he knew about illegal wiretaps, Perini said they were false. He'd investigated his primary accuser, a police officer, for supplying cocaine and the man retaliated, Perini said.
Today, on the wall of Perini's Hauppauge office are three photos of him giving testimony before the commission. He said the commission thought it had ammunition to bring him down, but it was only "firing blanks."
"They did such an inept job in questioning me that I walked out of there to a standing ovation," Perini said. "It was a career day."
Spota, who joined the district attorney's office in 1971 and left three years before Judge Namm's complaint, was not a focus of the SIC. But the commission noted that:
A 1982 investigation into an alleged kickback scheme linked to Spota's private law firm, referrals of drunken-driving defendants and an assistant district attorney was superficial. The prosecutor who conducted the incomplete inquiry left the district attorney's office in April 1984 and sublet space in Spota's office. He joined Spota's firm as a partner a year later.
Spota's highest-profile case, the 1979 murder of 13-year-old John Pius, who was found dead with stones jammed down his throat, demonstrated "systemic problems" with Suffolk homicide prosecutions. Three of four defendants in the case saw their convictions reversed. They were among nine overturned homicide cases cited, though Spota did not prosecute most of them.
In an interview Tuesday, Spota acknowledged the investigation into purported kickbacks for drunken-driving referrals may have been cursory. But he said he knew nothing about the alleged scheme. Spota said he hired the prosecutor who handled the lax inquiry for his legal expertise.
Spota said there was "a great deal of animosity" between himself and the chairman of the State Commission of Investigation, which he said may account for references to the kickback allegations in the report.
"I think that it was retribution on the part of the SIC because I had represented many of the police officers, and aggressively represented them," he said.
Spota said he convicted two of the four Pius defendants and the verdicts were properly obtained and upheld by state appellate courts. He prosecuted only one of the other six murder convictions cited by the SIC that would be overturned, he said, and the reversal was due to a subsequent change to the law.
There was an overreliance on confessions by Suffolk law enforcement in the past, Spota acknowledged, but he said he never used a confession that was obtained improperly.
"Coerced confessions? You think that we want to put a person who didn't commit a crime in jail? That would be the worst thing that would ever happen," Spota said.
With Sandra Peddie
and Adam Playford