Spota, Perini face off in primary for Suffolk DA

Thomas Spota and Raymond Perini are facing off

Thomas Spota and Raymond Perini are facing off in the 2013 Republican primary for Suffolk District Attorney. (Credit: Newsday, 2013/John Paraskevas; Ed Betz, 2013)

Suffolk County District Attorney Thomas Spota stood outside a Waldbaum's market in Rocky Point on a recent afternoon, reacquainting himself with an exercise he hadn't needed in 12 years: campaigning.

His opponent, longtime criminal attorney Raymond Perini, worked Ronkonkoma's Long Island Rail Road station several days later. As he talked to voters, he assailed the county political leaders who allowed Spota to run without opposition in prior elections and receive the GOP's endorsement this time -- despite being a Democrat.

Tuesday's Republican primary for Suffolk district attorney pits former colleagues from different parties against each other in a fight they've taken from the courts to the streets.

MORE: Inside the 1980s investigations | A look at 2013's race

Spota, 71, of Mount Sinai, was first elected in 2001. He presided over a series of high-profile political corruption prosecutions in Islip and Brookhaven, and in recent years has focused on DWI and prescription drug crimes.

Perini, 66, of Huntington, led the Suffolk district attorney's narcotics unit from the late 1970s through the '80s, with Spota serving as a homicide prosecutor in the office for part of that time. Perini then became a criminal attorney, with well-known defendants including the late county GOP chairman John Powell.

The GOP primary race materialized after Spota last year successfully challenged Suffolk's term limit law as it relates to positions, such as his, created by the State Constitution. He has the Democratic, Republican, Conservative and Independence Party endorsements, as he did in his 2005 and 2009 re-election campaigns. If Spota wins Tuesday, he will run uncontested in November.

Perini sued to force Spota off the ballot, saying he is disregarding the will of voters who, by a 70 percent margin in 1993, set limits of 12 years for county office holders.

When the state's highest court, the Court of Appeals, last month affirmed that Spota can seek a fourth term, it marked the start of a campaign between two men with decades of legal experience.

THOMAS J. SPOTA III
Spota, a New Hyde Park native, joined the Suffolk district attorney's office in 1971, five years after earning a law degree from St. John's University.

He rose to become chief of the major offense bureau, which handles homicide. His cases included the 1979 killing of 13-year-old John Pius, who was found dead in Smithtown with rocks stuffed down his throat. Three boys, who sought to keep Pius quiet about a stolen dirt bike, were ultimately convicted after a series of appeals and retrials.

Spota left the DA's office in 1982, and worked for nearly two decades in private legal practice in Hauppauge. For much of that time, he served as counsel to county law enforcement groups including the Suffolk police detectives' union.

In 2001, Spota, who had just switched his party affiliation from Republican to Democrat, challenged GOP District Attorney James M. Catterson Jr. The bruising campaign included accusations by Catterson that Spota would be beholden to police unions, and charges by Spota that Catterson had politicized the office, bullying county officials he didn't like by threatening prosecutions.

Spota won by a large margin. His first term was marked by prosecutions of political figures -- including bribery cases against Fred Towle, a Republican county legislator from Shirley who was sentenced to six months in jail, and Steve Baranello, a Democratic campaign aide and the son of former Suffolk Democratic chairman Dominic Baranello. He received a community service sentence.

His investigation into political fundraising by former County Executive Steve Levy, a Republican, resulted in Levy's agreement in 2011 not to seek re-election and to turn over his $4 million war chest to Spota, who distributed it to donors.

Over his second and third terms, Spota touts his creation of the county's first vehicular crime unit to crack down on DWIs and hit-and-run accidents. He responded to the prescription drug abuse problem -- brought into high relief when an addict killed four people at a Medford pharmacy in 2011 -- by targeting doctors who illegally prescribe opioid painkillers.

"Our whole thing is our record," Spota said. "We've battled corruption, fraud, vehicle hit-and-runs and drugs."

As of his last campaign finance report, through Aug. 26, Spota reported that he had spent about $45,000 this year, and had $680,671 in cash on hand.

RAYMOND G. PERINI
Perini, an Astoria, Queens native who graduated from Brooklyn Law School, began his legal career in 1973 with the Brooklyn district attorney's office, primarily trying narcotics cases. In 1976, he joined the Suffolk DA's office, where he helped start the narcotics prosecution unit.

Perini served for 13 years as the chief prosecutor for drug cases. He joined federal officials in major probes, including the successful prosecution of Carlos Herrera, a major Colombian drug dealer, in the 1980s.

Perini left the DA's office in 1989 to become a criminal defense lawyer. His clients have included parents who were accused of covering up their son's role in a fatal hit-and-run (they pleaded guilty and avoided jail time), and a disbarred lawyer who pleaded guilty in 2012 and received community service, in the largest white-collar theft ring ever prosecuted in Suffolk.

Perini's highest-profile cases involved public officials accused of corruption. He defended Powell, the late former Suffolk GOP chairman who was sentenced to federal prison for crimes including bribery, and former Islip Town Supervisor Peter McGowan, a Republican who was convicted of bribery and misuse of campaign funds.

In the early 1990s, Perini represented Donald Zimmer, an ex-Brookhaven town board member who was indicted on federal charges of trading votes for cash and favors from Port Jefferson developer John McNamara. Zimmer was acquitted of all charges.

This is Perini's first run for office. He has declined to criticize Spota's performance, other than noting that he wants Spota to give more detail about his probe into Levy's campaign fundraising.

"People ask me all the time what happened there," Perini said recently of the Levy probe. But he said he's not ready to lay out his full platform. "I'll talk about the issues later. I just want a shot. I just want people to have a choice."

Through Aug. 26, Perini reported spending about $70,000, and had $115,943 on hand.

CAMPAIGNING
Both men have been campaigning actively in the last days of the race.

At the Ronkonkoma LIRR station last week, Perini and about a dozen volunteers walked the platforms, handing out fliers that touted him as the only "real Republican" in the race.

"If you're Republican, and don't vote Tuesday, then you have no choice," Perini told one commuter. "Then Spota's got all four lines in November."

If Perini wins the primary, Spota would still have the Democratic, Conservative and Independence lines in the general election, with Perini claiming the GOP line.

Perini's now running a television ad in which he asks, "Do you realize there has not been a Republican primary for district attorney in Suffolk County since Richard Nixon was president?"

At the Rocky Point Waldbaum's late last month, Spota, wearing an "Elect Tom Spota" pin from his first campaign, handed out fliers identifying him and Sheriff Vincent Demarco, a Conservative Party member, as the "official and endorsed candidates" of Suffolk Republicans.

He stepped away briefly to call a prosecutor who had just won a guilty verdict in a murder case, remarking that he had hoped to be in the courtroom.

"Look, I'd rather do other things, but this is kind of fun," Spota told a reporter as he stood next to the store's display of scented pinecones and hardy mums.

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