Early on, in his decade and a half as Suffolk’s district attorney, Thomas Spota earned a reputation as a reformer, and at one point, as Long Island’s most aggressive fighter of public corruption. But with his low-key — and not unexpected — announcement to staff Friday that he would not seek a fifth term, Spota will leave that office under a cloud.
“I will end the constant controversies and political vendettas that for years characterized the district attorney’s office,” Spota said during his 2002 swearing-in, after winning a decisive victory over opponent James M. Catterson Jr.
During the campaign, Spota claimed that Catterson had abused the district attorney’s office by pursuing vindictive, politically motivated prosecutions. “I envision an office that’s going to be guided not by politics but by principles,” Spota promised.
And, indeed, the new district attorney started off with a bang — impaneling grand juries to delve into allegations of child sexual abuse by Roman Catholic priests and, later, allegations of political corruption. Spota investigated allegations of Medicaid fraud and at one point subpoenaed hundreds of thousands of documents to dig into allegations of fiscal improprieties in Suffolk school districts.
Beginning in 2003, Spota started going after government corruption, expanding on his initial priorities — which had been restoring a cooperative tone with police and other law enforcement agencies, and fostering a better relationship between the district attorney’s office and crime victims.
By 2006, investigating corruption was such a priority that Spota established a new bureau to handle such cases, staffing it with three prosecutors, who were aided by a contingent of detective investigators.
Although there was grumbling in some quarters, Spota — as Catterson had before him — became a force to be reckoned with, a personality almost indistinguishable from the office he held. The Republican-turned-Democrat district attorney was so popular with residents — and so strong politically — that during 16 years in office he never had to engage in as bruising a campaign as he did in 2001 with Catterson.
Thanks to cross endorsements from every major political party in Suffolk for his second, third and — except for a Republican primary challenge from attorney Raymond Perini — fourth terms Spota never had to aggressively campaign at all.
And while Suffolk residents, via referendum, had supported term limits for elected officials, Spota challenged — and won — an exception for district attorney, sheriff and county clerk, which are offices created in the state constitution. That victory allowed Spota to seek — and win — a fourth term, making him the longest-serving district attorney in county history.
Last year, however, Spota’s reputation began taking a beating after federal investigators, sources told Newsday, began probing whether he and one of his chief assistants had participated in the cover-up of the assault on a man who stole a duffel bag from an SUV assigned to former Suffolk County Police Chief of Department James Burke — a Spota protege.
That investigation is continuing.
Spota began to attract political attacks, from within his own party, as well — with Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone last year calling for the district attorney’s resignation. “What we’re talking about here is the district attorney’s office that employs selective prosecution,” Bellone said, as he stood on the steps outside the district attorney’s office in Hauppauge, “ . . . targeting political enemies, protecting political friends.”
Which sound a lot like criticisms candidate Spota once made against the incumbent, Catterson.
Via a news conference of his own an hour later, however, Spota fired back, with the vigor he’d shown during the 2001 campaign. He said Bellone had a vendetta because Spota had prosecuted some Bellone allies.
“I have absolutely no reason why I should resign or be removed from office,” a visibly angry Spota said.
And stay he will, he said, until this, his 16th year in office, draws to a close.