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Unsealed Spota records reveal allegations of plot to topple Levy

Former district attorney Thomas Spota and former county

Former Suffolk District Attorney Thomas Spota and former county police chief James Burke plotted to remove Steve Levy as county executive because they saw him as "anti-cop" and "uncontrollable," according to newly unsealed court records. Newsday's Faith Jessie has more on this story with Newsday reporter Robert E. Kessler. Credit: Newsday

Federal prosecutors wanted to present evidence at the corruption trial of ex-Suffolk District Attorney Thomas Spota and his anti-corruption unit chief that the defendants plotted with former county police chief James Burke to remove Steve Levy as county executive, according to newly unsealed court records obtained by Newsday.

The reasons: They saw him as "anti-cop" and "uncontrollable."

In the bid to oust Levy, the unsealed records show the prosecution’s star trial witness was prepared to testify that Spota's co-defendant, Christopher McPartland, had pressured a Levy administration official into cooperating with the district attorney's investigation of Levy's campaign fundraising by threatening to reveal the high-ranking appointee had a gay lover.

The 2011 investigation by Spota, a Democrat, led to Levy's decision not to seek a third term as Suffolk County executive. Levy, who switched parties in a failed bid for the Republican gubernatorial nomination in 2010, agreed not to run again and to surrender his $4 million campaign warchest in a deal that ended Spota's inquiry.

Levy told Newsday after learning of revelations in the records that "these documents confirm that this cabal was engaged in a plot to get me out of the way so they could control the county."

The documents are among more than 1,000 pages of court records that U.S. District Judge Joan Azrack has unsealed as Spota and McPartland await sentencing on June 30.

Suffolk County district Attorney Thomas Spota walks from

Thomas Spota

Former Suffolk County district attorney

What the unsealed records say about him:  

  • Reportedly took “no disciplinary action” after learning of alleged DWI crash involving Burke and McPartland
  • Hickey told prosecutors Spota plotted with McPartland and Burke to topple Levy as county executive

The judge made the court records public after requests from Newsday and a former Newsday reporter who is writing a book. An attorney for Newsday cited the public’s right to access court records, including under the First Amendment, in asking Azrack to open records she sealed as the trial was pending. Lawyers from both sides had asked the judge to seal records in the case.

A federal jury in Central Islip in 2019 found Spota and McPartland orchestrated a cover-up of Burke’s 2012 beating of handcuffed prisoner Christopher Loeb while Burke was Suffolk’s police chief. Jurors convicted Spota, 79, of Mount Sinai, and McPartland, 55, of Northport, of conspiracy, obstruction of justice, witness tampering and acting as accessories to the deprivation of Loeb's civil rights.

Probation officials have recommended 57 to 71 months in prison for Spota and 46 to 57 months for McPartland. But the U.S. attorney's office argued in a sentencing memorandum that each should get eight years in prison — more than set by federal sentencing guidelines.

"A sentence within the guidelines range does not adequately capture nor appropriately punish the defendants," federal prosecutors wrote. They said the penalties "should reflect the unprecedented magnitude and scope of the defendants’ abuse of power."

Attorneys for Spota and McPartland have asked for home confinement and community service for their clients.

Defense attorneys didn’t respond to requests for comment about the unsealed records. But after reading the story on Newsday.com, McPartland’s lawyer, Larry Krantz, issued a statement Friday: "These new allegations of wrongdoing on the part of Mr. McPartland were appropriately excluded from the trial and are vehemently denied by him. There is no credible evidence to support them." On Saturday, Krantz said: "As to the allegation that Mr. McPartland threatened to reveal an individual’s gay relationship in order the secure his cooperation, that allegation is demonstrably false."

John Marzulli, a spokesman for the U.S. attorney's office, declined to comment.

Christopher McPartland, former aide to former Suffolk County

Christopher McPartland

Former Suffolk anti-corruption unit chief

What the unsealed records say about him

  • Allegedly threatened to expose a Levy administration official’s gay relationship to gain help with Spota’s probe of Levy
  • Hickey said McPartland got into DWI crash with Burke that caused $10,000 in damages to McPartland’s county vehicle

In 2016, Burke pleaded guilty to conspiracy to commit obstruction of justice and deprivation of Loeb's civil rights. He admitted to beating Loeb and to an ensuing cover-up. Burke later served most of a 46-month prison sentence before his release to a halfway house.

Testimony at the trial of Spota and McPartland showed Burke and three detectives beat Loeb after the Smithtown man, then addicted to drugs, stole a duffel bag from Burke's police department vehicle that had items in it that included his gun belt and ammunition along with sex toys, pornography and Viagra.

The newly unsealed records also show prosecutors had wanted jurors to hear about an alleged drunken-driving crash involving McPartland and Burke in 2011, and a subsequent cover-up for which the U.S. attorney's office said Spota later took "no disciplinary action."

FBI agents arrest former Suffolk Chief of Police

James Burke

Former Suffolk County police chief 

What the unsealed records say about him

  • Amassed a nearly 2,000 page internal affairs file while a Suffolk cop
  • Before police career, used drugs and pleaded to impaired driving after a 1982 State Police arrest for DWI

Prosecutors portrayed it as further evidence, beyond the Loeb beating, that the defendants would conceal wrongdoing involving Burke.

Spota's decision not to discipline McPartland when he learned of the crash years later was "particularly telling given the defendant's position as the District Attorney and establishes his willingness to protect and conspire with both Burke and McPartland," prosecutors said in the records.

Other unsealed documents include part of the nearly 2,000-page internal affairs file Burke amassed as a Suffolk cop, when 20 complaints were made against him. Investigators substantiated some of the charges in one of the complaints.

A cop’s 'unbecoming' conduct

The trial of Spota and McPartland in some ways became the trial Burke never had. Two now-retired detectives who participated in Loeb’s beating testified about the assault and how pressure to keep quiet about it changed their lives and careers.

One of the former detectives, Kenneth Bombace, testified with an immunity deal from the prosecution. The other ex-detective, Anthony Leto, testified after pleading guilty to conspiracy to obstruct justice. Leto is awaiting sentencing and faces up to 20 years in prison.

Prosecutors sought to show a close relationship among Spota, McPartland and Burke that they told jurors resulted in the defendants conspiring to cover up Burke’s criminal conduct.

Defense attorneys tried to distance their clients from the cover-up and other alleged misconduct by Burke. They argued against use of evidence in the trial that related to the Levy probe, the 2011 car crash and Burke’s internal affairs file.

Azrack excluded the Levy matter from the trial under a legal rule in which relevant evidence can be ruled out if its value is outweighed by danger that can include unfair prejudice, misleading the jury, undue delay, wasting time or needlessly presenting cumulative evidence.

The judge also denied the prosecution’s effort to introduce evidence of the 2011 car accident. When it came to Burke's policing record, Azrack allowed prosecutors to present only evidence of charges that internal affairs substantiated against Burke.

The defense had argued that use of Burke’s internal affairs and personnel files, including the complaint charges that were substantiated, "would create a serious risk" that jurors "would unfairly judge the defendants for Burke’s alleged — and largely unproven — sins."

After the trial, the defense also argued against Azrack unsealing records related to Burke’s internal affairs history and other alleged misconduct that didn’t come out during testimony, saying it could taint any future jury pool if the defendants won a retrial.

At the trial, jurors heard about a 1995 police internal affairs investigation into a relationship Burke, then a sergeant, had with Lowrita Rickenbacker — a felon with a history of arrests for crimes including drugs and prostitution.

Spota, then a private-practice attorney, represented Burke during the inquiry, which resulted in Burke losing 15 vacation days for engaging in "conduct unbecoming an officer." Internal affairs substantiated allegations that Burke engaged in sex acts with Rickenbacker in police vehicles while on duty and failed to safeguard his service weapon.

Another part of the unsealed file says Burke used drugs prior to taking an oath as a police officer, listing him as serving first with the NYPD starting in 1985 and then with Suffolk starting in mid-1986.

The records say the man who rose to become Suffolk’s police chief used cocaine and Quaaludes once each in 1982 and used marijuana — 75 to 100 times — and as late as 1983. They also reveal State Police arrested Burke on a drunken-driving charge in 1982 before he pleaded guilty to impaired driving.

Crash allegations emerge

Federal prosecutors first disclosed evidence related to the 2011 car crash following Burke’s arrest in December 2015. It came out in a letter to a judge as the U.S. attorney's office for the Eastern District sought his detention before trial.

Prosecutors said Burke, "by his own admission to others," drove drunk and hit a government-owned vehicle before he and the other driver left the area.

"Abusing his power and authority, Burke and the other driver left the scene of the accident, avoiding prosecution for the DUI, and committing a further crime by leaving without reporting the accident," the letter said. It added that Burke paid thousands of dollars out-of-pocket for vehicle repairs to cover up his crimes.

The unsealed records named McPartland as the second drunken driver, alleging he'd been driving a county vehicle that sustained more than $10,000 in damages.

Prosecutors wanted to present evidence at Spota and McPartland's trial that McPartland and Burke were drinking at a Hauppauge restaurant on New Year’s Eve in 2011 before Burke rear-ended McPartland with his personal vehicle.

Witnesses were prepared to testify that an unnamed third party took care of repairs to the government vehicle and "was instructed not to tell anyone about the accident" before Burke covered the repair costs with cash, prosecutors said in a court filing.

Prosecutors argued the accident was "essential to demonstrate the close relationship of the defendants and their co-conspirator James Burke," and showed the intent of Spota and McPartland was to protect Burke and one another.

Spota's attorney, Alan Vinegrad, and Krantz argued jurors shouldn’t hear about "a minor car accident." They said there was no indication any government witness would testify Burke or McPartland had been drunk at the time.

The defense also said the prosecution was "grasping at straws" and trying "to twist that episode into proof of the defendants’ criminal intent to obstruct justice with Burke" when it had no similarity to the alleged obstruction conspiracy.

Burke's attorney, John Meringolo, dismissed the new revelations against Burke involving the alleged drunken-driving crash, dubbing them "fake news," and the Levy investigation.

"Mr. Burke has moved on with his life. He doesn't pay any attention to this," Meringolo added.

Talk of ‘killing Levy’

Prosecutors at the Spota-McPartland trial wanted the government’s key trial witness, former Suffolk police Lt. James Hickey, to testify about the Levy investigation — including McPartland's alleged threat to expose a high-ranking Levy administration official's gay relationship.

Hickey told federal prosecutors that Spota, McPartland and Burke spoke at a Hauppauge restaurant about how McPartland had threatened the official with revealing the secret relationship before the Levy appointee "crumbled" and cooperated in Spota's probe of the then-county executive.

Former Suffolk County Executive Steve Levy in 2010.

Steve Levy

Former Suffolk county executive

What the unsealed records say about him

  • Spota, McPartland and Burke allegedly plotted to remove Levy as county executive
  • Hickey told prosecutors they saw Levy as “anti-cop” and “uncontrollable”

 

The government witness also said that during a March or April 2011 gathering at the same restaurant that Hickey, Spota, McPartland, Burke and others celebrated "killing Levy" — or getting rid of him, the unsealed records show.

Prosecutors also said in the documents that Hickey was prepared to testify about a 2006 dinner at a Great Neck steakhouse in which he, Spota, McPartland and Burke discussed their hatred of Levy and ways to get rid of him — discussions he said occurred regularly between then and 2010.

Hickey said the idea was to clear the way for Levy’s replacement with a new county executive who would let the group pick a police commissioner so Spota, McPartland and Burke would control the police department, prosecutors wrote in the records.

James Hickey, Criminal Intelligence Bureau

James Hickey

Former Suffolk County police lieutenant

What the unsealed records say about him

  • Was prepared to testify Spota, McPartland and Burke celebrated “killing Levy” – or getting rid of him as county executive
  • Told prosecutors Burke, Spota and McPartland bragged Levy was taken down because he was an “enemy”

Federal officials also said Hickey told them Burke later bragged about the successful coup and introduced McPartland to police officers as "the man who killed Steve Levy."

Hickey pleaded guilty to conspiracy to obstruct justice and said from the witness stand he is hoping for leniency at his sentencing because of his role as a cooperating government witness.

The retired police lieutenant, who faces up to 20 years in prison, testified at the trial that he was a middleman in the conspiracy who ensured the silence of three detectives in his unit who took part in the prisoner beating with Burke.

In addition, the witness had been prepared to tell jurors Burke, Spota and McPartland bragged Levy was taken down because he was an "enemy," according to a partially redacted section of an unsealed court document.

Levy also told Newsday upon hearing of details in the unsealed court records that he "was not anti-cop" and it was the "excessive influence of the union bosses" he fought against.

"I was a defender of the taxpayer and would not be a puppet to those who wanted to make the county their personal playpens," he added.

The unsealed court records show another former Suffolk police officer had been ready to testify at Spota and McPartland's trial that he heard Burke introduce McPartland as "the man who killed Steve Levy" and what that meant.

The defense argued against letting jurors hear about the Levy probe, saying there was no suggestion from the government that there was anything unlawful about the investigation.

Spota said publicly in 2011 that his office’s probe "revealed serious issues with regard to fundraising," but Levy "did not personally profit."

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