Suffolk County last week more than lived up to its long-standing reputation as the “Dodge City of politics” as County Executive Steve Bellone and District Attorney Tom Spota engaged in a virtual gunfight at the prosecutor’s Hauppauge office.
Bellone called for Spota’s immediate resignation and said he would ask Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo to remove him if he doesn’t leave on his own. Bellone cited a “culture of corruption” surrounding Spota’s tenure.
Spota refused, saying he’s done nothing wrong. He returned fire, charging Bellone with pursuing a “vendetta” because his office had investigated Bellone allies including boyhood pal Robert Stricoff.
The blistering charges mirror those in a 1975 feud between Suffolk’s first Democratic district attorney, Henry O’Brien, and then-county police Commissioner Eugene Kelley, a Republican.
That fight was even more personal and prolonged, lasting two years. While the outcome of the current controversy is unclear, what happened between Kelley and O’Brien may be illustrative.
The tinder for that controversy came from a police detective unit assigned to the district attorney’s office and the handling of informants.
The battle spun out of control when O’Brien launched a grand jury to investigate misconduct allegations against Kelley. One was that Kelley got a free engine for his daughter’s car from Frank Provenzano, a Hagerman truck dealer who at the time was charged with bribery and possession of stolen trucks.
Years later, Provenzano was convicted of racketeering in a stolen truck ring. Late Suffolk GOP chairman John Powell also pleaded guilty to participating in the ring.
Kelley escalated the war, charging that O’Brien had committed sexual abuse and sexual misconduct with 21-year-old former client Roger Barry Peterson, who had a long police record. Kelley said Peterson received favored treatment through a bail reduction. O’Brien called the charges “vicious and depraved.”
The O’Brien-Kelley feud became so intense that Gov. Hugh Carey named former U.S. Attorney Joseph Hoey as special prosecutor. The probe took so long a second prosecutor, Alfred Scotti, later replaced him.
Two grand juries heard 161 witnesses over 81 sessions. The probe cost $661,000 — about $3 million in today’s dollars.
In 1977, both men were cleared of criminal charges, although grand jury reports criticized each.
Both sides cried politics.
Democrats accused Republicans of trying to thwart O’Brien’s corruption probes; Republicans said Carey-appointed special prosecutors went easy on the district attorney.
O’Brien lost his re-election bid later that year. He blamed news media coverage, particularly Newsday’s, for his defeat. “I lost the election by one vote — that of Robert W. Greene,” O’Brien said, referring to the late Newsday Long Island editor.
Kelley served out his four-year term as police commissioner. He later served as deputy county attorney, and worked for both the Queens and Brooklyn district attorneys.
Looking back, Kelley, 88, said the battle wasted a lot of money and that the feud should have been resolved without controversy. “It brings backs some sad memories,” he said.
O’Brien, 80, agreed that both sides “went a bit overboard.” But O’Brien, a Spota supporter, sees Bellone’s appearance outside Spota’s office as “grandstanding, thinking the best defense is a good offense.”
Desmond Ryan, a Republican business lobbyist who was a county executive aide during the Kelley-O’Brien feud, said Bellone and Spota should realize that no one wins such battles.
“In politics, perception is reality and both will suffer,” Ryan said.