Suffolk County District Attorney Thomas Spota’s announcement last week that he intended to resign, two months before the end of his final term, came as no surprise.
The conditions imposed by a federal court judge on Spota and Christopher McPartland, head of Spota’s anti-corruption unit, after their indictments on corruption-related charges effectively isolated the duo from the day-to-day operation of the office.
U.S. District Judge Leonard Wexler on Wednesday said Spota and McPartland could proceed with regular work-related activities together only in the presence of a third party.
The third party? That person would have to be agreed upon by prosecutors and defense attorneys — which sounds like a high-level variation of a child visitation agreement.
There’s no way Spota could run the office under those circumstances, or with an indictment — alleging that he and McPartland were involved in the cover-up of former Suffolk Police Chief of Department James Burke’s 2012 beating of a suspect — hanging over him.
In 2015, when Burke, who is serving a federal prison sentence, was arrested on charges, including obstruction, Wexler denied him bail. Instead, the judge ordered that Burke be jailed until his trial. One factor in the judge’s decision was prosecutors’ contention that Burke, who had resigned his police department position, still wielded influence.
Prosecutors did not seek denial of bail for Spota and McPartland. But they asked the judge to impose conditions, including the presence of the third party. Prosecutors cited “serious risk that the defendants will continue to obstruct or attempt to obstruct justice, and continue to threaten, intimidate or attempt to threaten or intimidate prospective witnesses without these conditions.”
Prosecutors say the attempted cover-up went on for years.
In 2012, Christopher Loeb was arrested for stealing items from several vehicles, including Burke’s county-issued SUV. Loeb’s case initially was handled by the DA’s government corruption bureau, headed by McPartland, which was unusual. It was switched to a special prosecutor after Loeb said his confession had been coerced because he was beaten by Burke.
In 2013, the U.S. attorney’s office began an investigation, which expanded quickly to include potential obstruction of justice. On June 25, 2013, when federal agents served members of the police department with subpoenas and notified Spota and McPartland of the investigation, the pair, according to a Justice Department release, “began to attempt to obstruct that investigation.”
That attempt continued, according to the indictment, to “the present.”
The police department, after Burke’s resignation, launched an aggressive cleanup operation. But there’s a difference between an appointed chief of department, who reports up through a police commissioner to a county executive, and an elected district attorney, who is the county’s top prosecutor.
“The district attorney is the district attorney’s office,” former Suffolk County Executive Patrick Halpin said in an interview. “Everything stems from the DA and in this case the office has been tainted, which means that everything from the office is tainted.”
Spota said last week he intended to step down, but gave no specific date. That’s not good enough, said Halpin, whose assessment was shared by others, including County Executive Steve Bellone.
“Spota needs to leave the office now, so the cleanup operation can begin now,” Halpin said.
Spota’s office had no comment Friday.