DA Spota gets court order to seal Melius business dispute

Suffolk County District Attorney Thomas Spota on Sept. Suffolk County District Attorney Thomas Spota on Sept. 20, 2013. Photo Credit: Joseph D. Sullivan

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The Suffolk County district attorney sought and was granted an order last week that sealed a civil case involving shooting victim Gary Melius and control of a company that makes ignition locking devices meant to stop drunken drivers.

The sealing order does not indicate why District Attorney Thomas Spota wanted the case kept from public view. Suffolk Administrative Judge C. Randall Hinrichs, who granted Spota the order, sealed the application that may have contained such details.

Hinrichs also sealed the sealing order, which Newsday obtained from a source.

Hinrichs' sealing order contains a case number that refers to a grand jury investigation, said Eugene O'Donnell, a lecturer at John Jay College of Criminal Justice who has been a prosecutor in Queens and Brooklyn. Several current and former prosecutors agreed.

O'Donnell said that it's atypical to seal a civil case as part of such a criminal investigation and that the grand jury may have a focus other than the attempt on Melius' life.

"It's not being pursued the way a robbery/homicide typically is," O'Donnell said.

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Shooter still at large

On Feb. 24, a masked shooter, who is still at large, shot Melius once in the forehead on the grounds of the developer's North Shore estate and event venue, Oheka Castle. The next day, Spota went to the hospital to visit Melius, who counts as friends many of the region's major political figures.

At the time, Spota said he was bothered by the many visitors talking with Melius, who saw former Sen. Alfonse D'Amato, Nassau County Executive Edward Mangano, Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone, Rep. Peter King and Rep. Steve Israel, among others, check in on him.

"Some of the visitors were asking Gary very specific questions about the shooting that were, in my view, improper, and we stopped all visitors," Spota told Newsday.

A day after seeing Melius, Spota got the sealing order under a provision of state criminal procedure law. Prosecutors invoke the provision when they fear an investigation may be hampered by details of a criminal case being made known, former prosecutors said.

Joel R. Weiss, former head of the Nassau district attorney's rackets and fraud bureaus, said a likely purpose of the sealing order is to prevent future witnesses from tailoring any testimony based on what they may have learned in the court file.

Fred Klein, who served as head of the Nassau district attorney's Major Offense Bureau and is now a Hofstra University assistant law professor, said it was unclear to him whether the provision had been appropriately applied in this case.

"The statute is aimed for criminal cases that have already been brought," Klein said. "No case has been brought. It also applies to items the DA has to turn over to the defense, not to civil proceedings. For that reason, I don't think it applies."

Spota's office did not respond to requests for comment.

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The prosecutor in Spota's office who made the motion for the order sealing the case, Marc Lindemann, works in the Suffolk district attorney's Major Crime Bureau.

 

Other cases not sealed

Using a historical database of court information, Newsday found 20 other cases filed since 2010 that involved Melius or his companies. None of those 20 were sealed as of Wednesday.

A reporter retrieved the records of the case Spota got sealed the day the order was granted, but before it took effect.

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Based on those records, Newsday last Thursday reported that in 2010 Melius signed an agreement with John Ruocco, founder of Interceptor Ignition Interlocks. Melius was promised shares in the company for getting laws passed that would help Interceptor in its efforts to land public contracts.

The relationship between the men soured, according to the records. Melius accused Ruocco of financial impropriety in regard to the company and Ruocco called Melius a duplicitous "political fixer." In December, State Supreme Court Justice Thomas Whelan in Suffolk sided with Melius, awarding him shares and wiping out the bulk of Ruocco's ownership interest.

Melius had delivered the "governmental access" that he had promised Interceptor, the justice wrote in his ruling.

Newsday reported Sunday on Whelan's personal and political ties to Independence Party chairman Frank MacKay, whom Melius tried to appoint to Interceptor's board of directors while the civil dispute was being considered in Whelan's courtroom.

An expert on judicial conduct said Whelan should have recused himself from the case.

A woman who answered the phone Wednesday in Whelan's chambers referred questions to Administrative Judge Hinrichs, who signed and granted the sealing order. Hinrichs' office directed a reporter to a court spokeswoman, Marian Tinari.

Wednesday, a reporter asked Tinari how many times Hinrichs had considered sealing applications such as the one Spota obtained and how often he had granted them. Tinari was unable to answer those questions.

Paul Sweeney, Melius' attorney in the case, did not respond to a request for comment.

A call to Melius at Oheka Castle, where he is recovering, was not returned.

Although O'Donnell said the grand jury cited in the sealing order may not be looking into Melius' shooting, the timing was hard to ignore. "The guy got shot in the head," O'Donnell said, "and they're sealing the record pertaining to a contentious civil proceeding."

With Matt Clark,

Gus Garcia-Roberts,

Keith Herbert, Sandra Peddie and Adam Playford

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