This story was reported by Nicole Fuller, Bridget Murphy and Michael O'Keeffe. It was written by Murphy.
A corruption saga that began with a prisoner’s 2012 beating in a police precinct and reached Suffolk County’s highest law enforcement ranks concluded Tuesday with a federal judge sentencing both former District Attorney Thomas Spota and his ex-aide to 5 years in prison.
U.S. District Judge Joan M. Azrack meted out the penalties after a jury previously found Spota and Christopher McPartland, his former anti-corruption chief, tried to conceal that brutality and impede a federal probe to protect then-Police Chief James Burke.
Spota, who spent 15 years at the top of Suffolk's law and order structure before his 2017 federal indictment, said in the Central Islip courtroom that his conviction marked "the lowest point" in his life — one he fears will become his legacy.
The disbarred lawyer, who will turn 80 next month, also shared a simple wish: "I hope not to die in prison alone," Spota told the judge.
Spota added that he felt deep anguish for the shame his conviction brought to his family.
"I’ve also left them with a shattered legacy and the stain of being a convicted felon," the former district attorney said. "My family will forever be marked by my disgrace."
In 2019, a jury convicted Spota, of Mount Sinai, and McPartland, 55, of Northport, of conspiracy, obstruction of justice, witness tampering and acting as accessories to the deprivation of prisoner Christopher Loeb's civil rights.
The pre-pandemic verdict supported the prosecution's contention that both defendants orchestrated a cover-up of the beating of the shackled burglary suspect that Burke carried out with three detectives inside a Hauppauge precinct.
The assault happened hours after the Smithtown man, then a heroin addict, stole a duffel bag from Burke’s department vehicle with items inside it that included Burke’s gun belt and ammunition, along with Viagra, sex toys and pornography.
First Assistant U.S. Attorney Nicole Boeckmann said in court Tuesday that Spota still hadn't apologized for actions that had "an absolute chilling effect" on the county's criminal justice system and implored the judge to impose prison time.
While doing so, Azrack said Spota did "incalculable damage" to the criminal justice system after "not a momentary lapse" in judgment but a yearslong conspiracy that included threats against witnesses.
"I hope it sends a clear message that no one is above the law and criminal conduct that betrays the public trust will be punished," the judge said of his sentence.
Spota's attorney, Alan Vinegrad, told the judge his client is "a shadow" of his former self and a "fundamentally good" person who is devoted to his wife of 51 years, his three children and his grandchildren.
He also said Spota recently was given an "uncertain" medical prognosis — but didn't provide further details. Vinegrad also raised the possibility of the former district attorney, who was vaccinated against COVID-19 becoming infected in prison and then possibly dying.
Loeb, the abused prisoner, also spoke in court Tuesday, telling the judge that Spota "should spend the rest of his life behind bars." He said the criminal justice system in Suffolk isn't just broken, but corrupt by design.
"To see any old man live the rest of his life in a prison cell, possibly dying in jail, that kinda sucks but you have to be accountable for what you did," Loeb added after court.
The judge told Spota to surrender to prison officials on Dec. 10 and also sentenced him to pay a $100,000 fine. She ordered McPartland to surrender on Nov. 10.
McPartland also addressed Azrack on Tuesday before hearing his sentence.
"It has been a difficult five years and I have lost a lot," the ex-prosecutor said in part.
McPartland also asked the judge to consider how a severe punishment would impact his family and the suffering he said they already have endured.
His attorney, Larry Krantz, lobbied for leniency for a client he called "an honorable, decent, good man" who had "a brutal fall from grace."
Krantz cited what he said was McPartland’s history of public service and good deeds, calling him a loving husband and father and someone who worked his way through college and law school before earning accolades throughout his career. The defense attorney also argued that McPartland should get less prison time than Burke because Burke was responsible for the underlying crime.
But Azrack said that by participating in the cover-up, both defendants sent the message that prosecutorial power in Suffolk can be abused, civil rights violations will be tolerated and that some people in the county are above the law.
The federal judge said prosecutors have enormous power over life, liberty and reputation, but the defendants substantially abused that power by helping to cover up Loeb's assault, forcing detectives to lie to a grand jury and prosecutors and thwarting a grand jury investigation.
Acting Eastern District U.S. Attorney Jacquelyn Kasulis said in a statement after Tuesday's sentencing hearing that justice had been served after "reprehensible violations of the public trust" by the defendants.
"When a sitting District Attorney and one of his top prosecutors are corrupt and use their power to intimidate witnesses and cover up a brutal assault by a high-ranking law enforcement official, they not only jeopardize the safety of citizens who are entitled to the protection of the law, they also undermine confidence in the integrity and fairness of our criminal justice system," she said.
"Instead of serving the people of Suffolk County, these defendants brazenly abused their exceptional positions of power and public trust to protect their friends and hurt their enemies. With today’s sentences, justice has been served and the defendants have learned the consequences of their crimes, just like anyone else who has broken the law."
The defense teams for Spota and McPartland had lobbied extensively for sentences of home confinement and community service for their clients.
Vinegrad described Spota in a court filing as a "shattered man" whose age, declining health and record of public service supported a no-prison sentence. Krantz had argued that McPartland already had lost his reputation, life savings and — like Spota — his law license.
In contrast, the U.S. attorney’s office had sought 8-year sentences for both defendants. Prosecutors said Spota and McPartland did "the exact opposite" of their jobs so they could protect Burke in a nefarious plot aimed at maintaining a power structure controlled by those who believed they were above the law.
The U.S. attorney's office also argued that the defendants hadn't accepted responsibility for their actions and deserved more time in prison than sentencing guidelines recommended because of "the need for deterrence" and the "egregiousness" of their actions.
The judge said in a ruling last week that the imprisonment range both defendants were facing under federal guidelines was between 57 and 71 months in prison. She found that sentencing enhancements should apply because Spota and McPartland abused their positions of public trust, substantially interfered with the administration of justice, held leadership roles and committed crimes extensive in scope and planning.
Azrack explained Tuesday that she was intentionally punishing the defendants with more prison time than Burke received. She said that Burke had pleaded guilty quickly after his separate arrest and that, as prosecutors, Spota and McPartland were supposed to be an "essential bulwark against police misconduct."
Burke pleaded guilty in 2016 to the beating and cover-up, serving most of a 46-month prison sentence before his release to a halfway house.
Spota and McPartland’s trial became the first time that some of those involved in Loeb’s assault spoke about it publicly, with two of the three detectives who took part in the beating with Burke testifying about the police brutality and how the pressure to keep quiet later changed their lives and careers.
It was testimony from James Hickey, a retired Suffolk police lieutenant, that formed the heart of the government’s case. He told jurors he acted as a middleman in a yearslong conspiracy to cover-up Loeb’s beating after being tasked with ensuring the silence of the three detectives.
Hickey linked Spota and McPartland directly to the conspiracy with testimony that included his recalling of a June 2015 meeting in Spota’s office that happened after federal officials relaunched a probe into Loeb’s beating after their initial investigation fell flat in 2013.
Word of a reopened probe panicked Spota, according to Hickey’s testimony. He told jurors Spota grilled him on who he suspected had "flipped," or started cooperating with federal officials.
"Somebody’s talking. You better find out fast, if it’s not too late," Hickey testified the district attorney also told him that day.
Hickey, now retired and facing sentencing himself, named Spota, McPartland, Burke, former Suffolk chief of detectives William Madigan and himself as members of a self-appointed group nicknamed "The Inner Circle." He described it as a coalition of five high-powered, corrupt insiders who were behind the cover-up and would take collective aim to discredit and punish their enemies.
The prosecution told jurors during the trial that Spota was the "CEO" of the conspiracy, while McPartland was the scheme's "chief operating officer" as they broke the law they were supposed to uphold.
The government also claimed McPartland was the "architect of the lies," helping Burke craft a story about Loeb being a "junkie thief" who fabricated his tale of an assault — a script everyone who became part of the conspiracy had to follow.
The defense took aim at Hickey, who retired shortly before pleading guilty in 2016 to conspiracy to obstruct justice, and who told jurors he is hoping for leniency at his future sentencing because of his role as a cooperating prosecution witness.
Lawyers for Spota and McPartland portrayed Hickey during the trial as a mentally unstable drunk and serial philanderer who lied repeatedly to his spouse and committed perjury when testifying years ago in a burglary case that a Suffolk judge threw out.
During closing arguments, Krantz presented jurors with a list of "10 reasons why James Hickey cannot be believed" that included "raw self-interest" and a "psychotic break from reality."
Testimony showed Hickey was hospitalized in 2015 after hallucinations brought on by stress and sleep deprivation, after a separate 2013 hospitalization for pancreatitis after excessive alcohol intake.
The star prosecution witness said during the trial that he began drinking while under extreme pressure to keep his intelligence unit detectives quiet about the Loeb beating. But he insisted his memory wasn’t compromised by his drinking and that he never consumed alcohol after his 2013 hospital discharge.
The defense also claimed during the trial that there was no way Spota or McPartland tried to hide Burke’s role in Loeb’s beating because Burke never confessed to them before admitting his guilt in federal court. They depicted Burke as Spota’s "professional child of sorts" and a wise elder who told a golf buddy after Burke’s conviction that he shouldn’t sympathize with the wayward cop because he "did it to himself."
But the prosecution painted Spota as someone who compromised his ethics to protect his loyal protégé after a nearly four-decade relationship that started when Burke, at 14, was the star witness for Spota in 1979 as he prosecuted another teenager’s suffocation murder.
Spota represented Burke years later as a private attorney when Burke faced internal police discipline after 1995 allegations — which were substantiated — that Burke engaged in sex acts with a known prostitute in police vehicles and failed to safeguard his service weapon.
In 2001, Spota won his first election as district attorney with the backing of police unions while campaigning on an anti-corruption platform. He then arranged for Burke to be transferred to serve as commanding officer of the squad of police officials who worked directly for him as district attorney, prosecutors said during the trial.
They also presented evidence that Spota, as part of his history of covering up for Burke, wrote a 2011 letter to County Executive-elect Steve Bellone’s transition team.
In it, Spota raved about Burke’s "outstanding leadership" in response to an anonymous letter that had surfaced as selection was underway for a new police chief. The anonymous communication had issued a warning about Burke’s internal affairs history, and made reference to a prostitute stealing Burke’s service weapon.
But Spota, who knew of Burke’s police disciplinary history, responded to the allegation by saying Burke’s off-duty firearm was taken in a pattern of burglaries in his neighborhood, prosecutors told jurors.
Burke got the promotion.
Former Det. Anthony Leto testified at the trial that Burke punched, kneed and shook Loeb during the beating he also took part in, with Burke also threatening to give Loeb a "hot shot" or deadly drug dose.
Leto retired in 2015, later pleaded guilty to conspiracy to obstruct justice and now is awaiting sentencing. He told jurors he testified falsely during a hearing in Loeb’s case and feared Suffolk police or prosecutors would fabricate charges against him or his family if he didn’t go along with the cover-up.
Retired Det. Kenneth Bombace, who also took part in the beating, testified under an immunity deal that he stashed his family in a hotel in 2015 before testifying separately before a grand jury about the conspiracy. He said he feared he or his family would be falsely accused of a crime if he testified honestly about Loeb’s beating.
Jurors delivered their verdict after about seven hours of deliberations in the sixth week of the trial, with the panel’s forewoman saying later in an interview that that law should apply equally to everyone.
Bellone, the Suffolk County Executive, said outside the federal courthouse Tuesday he knew he had inherited a government in crisis when he began serving in his role a decade ago. But he said he didn't realize that there was a corrupt conspiracy operating among those at the highest level of law enforcement.
"We are paying for that corruption today. The unfortunate truth is that we will be paying for it for years to come. But the good news is that this culture of corruption has been swept out of the district attorney's office and has been replaced with a culture of integrity," he added.
Suffolk District Attorney Timothy Sini reflected on his predecessor's conviction Tuesday in a statement in which he said the agency he leads needs "to remain focused on continuing our progress and ensuring that the days of the past never happen again."
Sini added that the defendants' actions represented "the worst of law enforcement," while saying their actions "devastated many people individually" and "deprived Suffolk residents of what they deserve from public officials."
Boeckmann, the prosecutor, said outside the courthouse that the long-term damage Spota and McPartland inflicted on the criminal justice system couldn't be overstated.
"These men were the highest ranking prosecutors in Suffolk County and they flagrantly disregarded the law and the sanctity of their public office to protect an equally high-ranking, lawless police officer," she added.
Boeckmann also called their punishments fitting.
"These sentences send the right message to the public, that they can have faith in their criminal justice system, that the system is not broken and that corrupt police officers cannot and will not be protected by power-hungry prosecutors," she said.