Editorial: DA Spota should hand off the Edward Walsh case

Edward Walsh shakes hands with State Sen. Lee Edward Walsh shakes hands with State Sen. Lee Zeldin at his campaign headquarters in East Moriches, June 24, 2014. Photo Credit: John Roca

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Edward Walsh supposedly has extraordinary powers. As chairman of Suffolk County's Conservative Party, he's a judicial kingmaker and patronage purveyor. In real life, he's on the clock as a lieutenant in the sheriff's department, a public employee who primarily works out of the Riverhead jail as a liaison to the court system.

His boss, Suffolk County Sheriff Vincent DeMarco, wants to fire him and plans to turn over the results of his investigation for possible criminal prosecution. But to whom? Walsh brags about his outsized influence. Why wouldn't the public believe that his reach can extend right into the office of Suffolk County District Attorney Thomas Spota?

Unfortunately, a state law that should be repealed prevents the public from learning about misconduct by law enforcement officers. Newsday has reported, however, that Walsh is under investigation for charging the county for hours he didn't work. In 2013, he earned a base salary of $163,044 and $51,479 in overtime.

DeMarco has brought departmental charges against Walsh. These are known as "time sheet" cases and are considered pretty straightforward. Suffolk's correctional facilities are secure environments with video cameras, badge checkpoints and cellphone records. Either you were there or you weren't.

However, investigating the Walsh case is risky for Spota and for the prosecutor's office, which he defends as a professional one. After all, Spota won his job with a campaign that called for the office to be free of politics.

It takes a dose of recent Suffolk political history to understand how the dots between Spota and Walsh are connected. In 2001, Spota defeated Republican incumbent James Catterson by taking away his traditional support on the Conservative line. A rump group of Conservative Party members got Richard Thompson, a sports agent-turned-lawyer, on the primary ballot and he defeated Catterson by 116 votes. In the general election, Spota, who had the Democratic and Independence party endorsements, trounced Catterson, who ran only on the GOP line.

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Spota has since been re-elected three times with Conservative Party endorsements. Walsh has been party chairman for eight years.

There are more dots. As a young employee in the corrections department, Walsh was the driver for Edward Morris Sr., the top deputy to then-Sheriff Patrick Mahoney. Catterson indicted both Mahoney and Morris for running political campaigns out of their government offices. Spota was the defense attorney for Morris, also a political mentor of Walsh.

Spota shouldn't even open the files DeMarco sends over. He should step aside and send the sheriff's evidence to the district attorney in another jurisdiction, such as Manhattan. For that matter, any court proceedings involving Walsh should be off Long Island, too. Walsh's partisan specialty was making or breaking judges in Nassau and Suffolk counties through election endorsements. Public confidence in our criminal justice system would be better served if it is handled by a judge outside Walsh's sphere of influence.

If Spota decides his office should investigate the Walsh matter but decides not to prosecute, there will always be doubts he made an honest call. If Spota brings charges, the same questions would be raised about any plea bargain or sentencing recommendation.

In denouncing Catterson during that fiery 2001 campaign, Spota said, "There should be no politicization of the DA's office at all."

Those are words worth remembering.

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