Federal authorities have interviewed several individuals involved in the Suffolk County District Attorney’s Office’s 2007 wiretap investigation of politically connected defense attorney Robert Macedonio and are examining whether an alleged bribe to prosecutor John Scott Prudenti went uninvestigated, according to a source with direct knowledge of the ongoing federal probe.
The circumstances surrounding a tip that Macedonio paid Prudenti a cash bribe for the early release of a violent felon is part of a larger federal investigation into selective prosecution and abuse of power under District Attorney Thomas Spota, according to the source. Beyond the Macedonio case, federal officials are examining at least two other cases handled by Spota’s office, the source said.
Spota, who has arguably been Suffolk County’s most formidable political figure for more than a decade, has faced recent demands that he resign amid increasing scrutiny of his office and how he has exercised his authority.
Following a Newsday story last week that detailed how the district attorney’s office failed to prosecute apparent public corruption, drug activity and an armed robbery during an extensive wiretap investigation into Macedonio, County Executive Steve Bellone in a news conference accused Spota of leading a “criminal enterprise” and demanded that he step down or be removed from office.
Suffolk County’s Republican lawmakers echoed Bellone’s call for Spota to resign, and their Democratic counterparts have indicated they will hold a public hearing and demand answers from Spota. Suffolk County Sheriff Vincent DeMarco had previously written an Op-Ed in Newsday calling for Spota’s resignation.
Spota, during his own news conference held in response to Bellone’s, rebuffed the county executive and said there is “absolutely no reason” for him to resign and that Bellone made his statements because he had prosecuted Bellone’s friends. Spota added that he would only leave office on his own terms.
In the same news conference, Spota stated that all public corruption leads in the Macedonio case had been “exhaustively investigated.” Spota also referred to Newsday’s report as “fundamentally flawed” and said Macedonio was not involved in the case concerning the bribery allegation. “It was not Macedonio at all,” Spota said.
Spota and Prudenti declined to be interviewed for this story.
However, court records show that Macedonio was a key participant in the case of Benjamin Piccolo, a violent felon whose early release from prison would be an impetus for the district’s attorney’s extensive wiretap investigation.
Macedonio represented Piccolo at his arraignment in 1999 — when the felon was prosecuted for masterminding an armed robbery — and called the district attorney’s case a “fishing expedition,” according to a Newsday article at the time. In 2000, Piccolo was convicted of two violent felonies after he pleaded guilty to attempted robbery and attempted burglary in the first degree. In 2004, court records show, Macedonio helped secure Piccolo’s early release from a seven-year sentence.
Officials familiar with the district attorney’s Macedonio prosecution told Newsday that the tip that Macedonio bribed Prudenti in return for help securing Piccolo’s release was one of several leads involving public corruption that investigators said they were prevented from aggressively pursuing.
Those officials said investigators were able to determine that Prudenti misled a judge in 2003 when he said Piccolo had agreed to provide key information and help gain the conviction of another felon. Prudenti cited Piccolo’s alleged willingness to cooperate as he asked the judge to reduce Piccolo’s original seven-year sentence.
Federal officials have been told by sources involved in the Macedonio case that contrary to what Prudenti said, Piccolo “absolutely did not want to cooperate and had to be subpoenaed to testify,” according to the person with knowledge of the federal investigation.
The officials familiar with the district attorney’s investigation said investigators were told that Macedonio bribed Prudenti by paying him to charter the prosecutor’s boat. The investigators separately learned that Macedonio had chartered the boat on at least one occasion, and they intercepted a phone call in which he told another defense attorney that though Prudenti wanted him to go out on his boat “to talk,” Macedonio did not want to rent the prosecutor’s boat or take anybody out on it.
After securing Piccolo’s early release, district attorney investigators caught Macedonio on a wiretap discussing a range of potential criminal activity with Piccolo, including witness tampering, according to officials. Macedonio and Piccolo plotted to retaliate against a man, whom they referred to as a “rat,” by exposing him as a criminal informant.
The wiretap investigation ultimately ended in 2008 when Macedonio pleaded guilty to felony cocaine possession, although that conviction was later vacated with the help of prosecutors. State criminal court records show Piccolo was not convicted of any crimes stemming from the district attorney’s investigation.
Macedonio declined to answer questions for this story. Piccolo responded to a reporter’s attempt to question him about his case by saying, “[Expletive] you and [expletive] law enforcement.”
Newsday published a story in February detailing the district attorney office’s unusual prosecution of Macedonio, which Spota’s spokesman said was “common, not unique nor unprecedented.” Soon after, federal authorities subpoenaed all investigative records in the case, and they have now interviewed several of the personnel involved in the initial investigation.
In the story published last week, Newsday used public records, documents produced during the Macedonio investigation and information from sources familiar with the probe to provide an inside look at the district attorney’s wiretap investigation. Although wiretapped phone calls captured an array of apparent criminal conduct, including public corruption, officials familiar with the case said serious crimes went unpunished because the investigators were prevented from pursuing leads.
The district attorney’s Macedonio investigation went on for at least a year and was led by the office’s top three officials: Spota, prosecutor Christopher McPartland and James Burke, who at the time was the office’s chief investigator.
Burke later went on to lead the Suffolk Police Department until he resigned last year and pleaded guilty to federal charges that he beat a suspect in custody and orchestrated a cover-up of the crime. Newsday has also reported that McPartland is the target of a grand jury investigation related to his role in the Burke case.
The case at the center of the allegation that Macedonio bribed Prudenti stemmed from a 1997 home invasion robbery involving a crew of violent criminals that Piccolo helped mastermind, according to court filings and testimony.
Already a convicted drug dealer, Piccolo was on lifetime parole when he learned that a Smithtown man kept substantial sums of cash in a safe at his home. With the help of another career criminal — who would be convicted of a murder that same year in a separate case — Piccolo planned a heist in which two more criminal associates would masquerade as law enforcement officers to gain entry to the Smithtown man’s home.
The court records explain how the robbery unfolded: Piccolo rented a Ford Crown Victoria and had it customized to look like a detective’s unmarked police car. At an Islip auto body shop run by another criminal associate, Brian Soltan, Piccolo’s accomplices dressed up as a uniformed police officer and a detective.
Piccolo drove the men to the target and waited in the Crown Victoria as his disguised associates entered the man’s home. At gunpoint, Piccolo’s associates duct-taped homeowner Frank Geraci, his fiancee, his mother and his sister-in-law. Geraci’s 3-year-old niece was also present. The robbers made off with a Rolex watch, a pistol and $155,000.
Geraci and the other victims suffered lasting physical and emotional harm, court filings state. According to a probation officer’s report, Geraci said that Piccolo “should stay in jail for as long as possible, and be forced to do every day of his sentence and not a day less.”
When Piccolo was arraigned in connection with the robbery in June 1999, Prudenti, the prosecutor, told Suffolk County Court Judge Louis Ohlig that Piccolo had recruited “known killers” for the robbery. Prudenti said that Piccolo may have ties to organized crime and that he’d been “nothing but a criminal his entire adult life.”
Piccolo pleaded guilty to first-degree attempted robbery and attempted burglary, both violent felonies. In April 2000, Ohlig sentenced him to seven years in prison. The sentence was determinate, meaning he would have to serve at least six years before he would be eligible for release.
As part of the sentencing, Piccolo promised to make restitution to Geraci and waived his right to appeal.
Three years later, with Macedonio representing Piccolo, Prudenti and Macedonio appeared before Judge Ohlig in June 2003. Macedonio and Prudenti asked Ohlig to reduce Piccolo’s sentence from seven to five years, according to a court transcript of the proceedings.
Prudenti told the judge that Piccolo had made full restitution to Geraci and that his former mother-in-law said his children needed him.
Most significant, Prudenti said, was Piccolo’s “extensive cooperation” against Soltan, the owner of the auto body shop that had been used as a staging area for the robbery. Prudenti said he and two detectives had visited Piccolo at Adirondack Correctional facility, and Piccolo had “expressed a desire” to assist in Soltan’s prosecution.
Piccolo then testified against Soltan before a grand jury, Prudenti said, with the understanding that prosecutors would recommend leniency in his own case. Prudenti said of Piccolo that he had “extensive dealings with him through that cooperation” and that the felon had exhibited remorse, court records show.
Court records depict Soltan as the heist’s most tangential participant — he ultimately pleaded guilty to felony possession of stolen property — but Piccolo’s alleged cooperation prompted Ohlig to reduce Piccolo’s sentence to five years.
The following year, Macedonio and Prudenti sought a new plea and more favorable sentence in the Piccolo case. The defense attorney and prosecutor asked Ohlig to vacate Piccolo’s conviction for violent felonies in favor of a plea to a nonviolent, felony grand larceny charge. Macedonio and Prudenti also sought to have Piccolo’s sentence reduced again, this time to two to four years, retroactive to the date of his previous sentencing.
Again, Ohlig agreed. Although state law demands that when taking such action, the court “must set forth on the record its findings of fact, its conclusions of law and the reason for its determination,” no explanation is available in the court file. A transcript of the hearing shows Ohlig also did not provide a statement explaining his decision.
Ohlig, who retired from the bench at age 70 in 2004, said in an interview Friday that he only had a vague recollection of the case and did not know why there was no explanation for his decision in the court record.
“Whatever I did, I relied on the district attorney, Mr. Prudenti’s, statement to me,” Ohlig said.
Piccolo was released from prison in December 2004, roughly three-and-a-half years before his original sentence would have expired. He was returned to lifetime parole supervision.
A year later, however, Piccolo received a “merit termination” of that parole status. State guidelines allow for a merit termination only when it is in the “best interests of society,” and it would have been unavailable to Piccolo had Prudenti and Macedonio not persuaded Ohlig to undo his original conviction and allow him to plead guilty instead to a nonviolent felony.
Documents reviewed by Newsday, as well as interviews with officials familiar with the district attorney’s 2007 wiretap investigation, show that Piccolo became one of Macedonio’s closest associates in much of the alleged criminal activity for which Macedonio was never charged.
In wiretapped conversations, the men discussed Macedonio’s mortgage business, Piccolo’s garbage business and the identities of those he believed to be secretly working for law enforcement..
In one phone conversation caught on the wiretap, Macedonio, a former Suffolk prosecutor, told Piccolo that a blond woman seen at Pace’s, their favored Port Jefferson steakhouse, was actually an undercover law enforcement officer.
One of the officials familiar with the district attorney’s investigation of Macedonio said that spreading such information could have been deadly for informants and undercover cops.
“That’s how narco guys get killed,” the official said.
In another call, the defense attorney and the felon discussed a property loan being prepared for Piccolo’s friend with the assistance of a Macedonio employee later convicted of committing mortgage fraud. Macedonio told Piccolo that he would “close his eyes” in regards to the apparently fraudulent mortgage and that he had instructed the employee to do what was necessary, according to the officials.
In another call, Macedonio told Piccolo that he could get him work via a friend, then-Brookhaven Highway Superintendent John Rouse. Macedonio — who was referred to in records from the wiretap investigation as someone who “acts as an official representative of the Brookhaven Republican Party” — told Rouse in a wiretapped call that Piccolo had gotten a Brookhaven address for his garbage business. Rouse replied that was fine but said he did not want to discuss the matter on the phone he was using, according to officials familiar with the investigation.
Rouse, who is now an acting Suffolk Supreme Court justice, said Sunday through a court spokesperson that he does not remember the conversation with Macedonio and has never known Piccolo.
Piccolo and Macedonio also had conversations captured on the wiretap in which they discussed exacting revenge on a “rat” they believed had given information to law enforcement. Macedonio described the “rodent problem” at Pace’s — presumably a reference to the alleged informant showing up at the steakhouse — and that “rat poison” should be thrown around the place.
“No problem,” Piccolo responded, saying that he knows “an exterminator” he can go see.
Officials familiar with the district attorney’s Macedonio investigation said that Piccolo papered the steakhouse with fliers outing the suspected informant as a “rat.”
Those officials said that though Piccolo could have been charged with witness tampering, he was never arrested or questioned as a result of the Macedonio probe.
If investigators had been able to interrogate Piccolo, one of the officials said, asking him about the alleged bribe of Prudenti “would have been the priority.”
INSIDE THE CASE
District Attorney Thomas Spota’s office oversaw the 2007 wiretap investigation of defense attorney Robert Macedonio that has recently drawn attention from federal investigators. Spota has faced calls to step down in recent weeks due in part to revelations about the Macedonio case.
Division Chief Christopher McPartland, the head of Spota’s Government Corruption Bureau, ran the Macedonio investigation. Newsday has reported that federal investigators are looking at McPartland’s role in a cover-up following the beating of a suspect by former Suffolk Police Chief James Burke.
James Burke, a longtime Spota ally and former Suffolk police chief, pleaded guilty in February to beating a suspect and then orchestrating a cover-up of his crimes. Burke helped manage the 2007 Macedonio probe while working for Spota in the district attorney’s office.
Defense attorney Robert Macedonio pleaded guilty to felony cocaine possession in 2008 following an extensive wiretap investigation. Macedonio’s conviction was later vacated and he regained his law license.
Benjamin Piccolo pleaded guilty to violent felonies in 2000 for his role in an armed robbery. With Macedonio as his attorney, Piccolo benefited from court decisions that granted him an early release from prison and the termination of lifetime parole.
Suffolk prosecutor John Scott Prudenti cited Piccolo’s cooperation against a co-conspirator in arguing for his early release from prison. Prudenti is currently a bureau chief for the district attorney’s office, where he has been a prosecutor for three decades.