TODAY'S PAPER
48° Good Evening
48° Good Evening
Long IslandCrime

Former Suffolk DA Thomas Spota's obstruction trial to start Tuesday

Newsday columnist Joye Brown spoke Friday about the upcoming trial of former Suffolk District Attorney Thomas Spota on obstruction charges in federal court. (Credit: Newsday / Chris Ware)

Thomas Spota, who wielded influence and power for nearly 16 years as Suffolk County District Attorney, will go on trial himself Tuesday in federal court on charges that he interfered with a probe into then-Suffolk police Chief of Department James Burke after he beat a man who broke into the chief’s department SUV in December 2012.

Spota, 78, of Mount Sinai, and a former top aide in the DA's office, Christopher McPartland, 53, of Northport, allegedly tried to cover up the actions of Burke, a Spota protégé, in the assault of Christopher Loeb, a heroin addict who stole a duffel bag from the unmarked police SUV parked in front of Burke's St. James home.

Burke, 55, pleaded guilty to the beating after resigning in November 2015. He was sentenced to 46 months in prison and served most of it before he was released last year.

Spota and McPartland are charged with conspiracy to tamper with witnesses and obstruct an official proceeding; witness tampering and obstruction of an official proceeding; obstruction of justice; and accessory after the fact to the deprivation of Loeb's civil rights. They each have pleaded not guilty to the charges.

Sources with knowledge of the case said Burke is declining to testify at the federal court in Central Islip.

Federal prosecutors say their case is simple.

“While the obstruction continued for several years, this is a straightforward, uncomplicated case involving the cover-up of a civil rights violation and the obstruction of a grand jury investigation, not a complex white-collar matter,” government prosecutors wrote in court papers.

Defense attorneys have argued in court papers that “a pivotal point” in the defense of both Spota and McPartland was that they believed the former chief was innocent of the Loeb assault because “Burke never admitted to Mr. McPartland or Mr. Spota or to anyone else in their presence, that he had in fact assaulted Loeb, and indeed Burke vociferously denied it.”

And Burke may have told others he didn’t assault Loeb, supporting Spota and McPartland’s defense, their attorneys have argued.

One of the defining characteristics of Spota’s 46-year career as a criminal lawyer was his close relationship with the Suffolk County Police Department. That relationship fueled his rise as an assistant district attorney to become chief of the Major Offense Bureau, in charge of all homicide prosecutions in the late 1970s and early 1980s. It also was the hallmark of his career as a private attorney, in which he represented the police detectives union and law enforcement officials who were charged with crimes.

At the time of his arrest, Spota was the longest-serving district attorney in Suffolk history, having been elected four times on an anti-corruption platform. He had attained stature in politics as well as law enforcement.

Spota’s investigation into political fundraising by former Suffolk County Executive Steve Levy, a Democrat turned Republican, resulted in Levy’s agreement in 2011 not to seek reelection and to turn over his $4.1 million war chest to Spota, who distributed it to Levy’s donors.

Spota also prosecuted former Islip Supervisor Pete McGowan, a Republican, who pleaded guilty in 2006 to bribe taking, laundering $52,000 in kickbacks, and witness tampering. McGowan served three months in county jail and later did community service.

A day after his not-guilty plea, Spota announced he would resign. His last day in office was Nov. 10, 2017.

Prosecutors say the case began in December 2012 after Loeb broke into Burke’s unmarked police SUV and stole the duffel bag containing a gun belt, ammunition, a box of cigars, sex toys and adult pornography.

Loeb was taken to the Suffolk police Smithtown precinct, where Burke beat him while in handcuffs, prosecutors said.

The prosecution papers say the cover-up of the beating began almost as soon as it happened. Spota and McPartland, as part of the alleged cover-up, required police witnesses to obtain lawyers through the Suffolk County Police Benevolent Assocation and the Suffolk County Detectives Assocation and to get legal representation from a list of attorneys approved by Burke’s lawyer.

The prosecution contends the two arranged “for high-ranking members of the SCPD and union officials to interact with potential witnesses … to gather further information and control the flow of information.”

The ties between Spota, Burke and McPartland run deep. Spota’s mentoring of Burke spanned almost four decades.

In 1979, Spota was the lead prosecutor in the trial of four young men charged with killing John Pius, a 13-year-old Smithtown boy who died when other teenagers crammed rocks down his throat.

Spota met Burke during that case. Burke, who was 14 years old at the time of the crime, testified that some of the defendants made admissions to him. It was the start of a relationship in which Spota mentored Burke and at times guided his law enforcement career.

Spota won murder convictions against two of the four defendants, but after five successful appeals and eight trials, only one of the murder convictions survived. One defendant was never retried, and the other two eventually pleaded guilty to lesser crimes.

Burke and McPartland also are close. Burke arranged from his prison cell to have a third party get $25,000 in cash from Burke's safe-deposit box and pass it to McPartland to help pay for the Suffolk prosecutor’s legal expenses, according to court papers.

At one point in the case against Burke, federal prosecutors successfully argued that the chief be held without bail as a danger to the community because he and an unidentified individual did not report an accident in which a drunken Burke driving in one car smashed into a state car driven by an unidentified person. Sources have identified the person in the other car as McPartland.

U.S. District Judge Joan Azrack, who is presiding over what is expected to be a four-week trial, eventually ruled that McPartland could not afford to pay the total cost of his defense and agreed to have his attorneys’ fees covered by the court system.

When Spota and McPartland were arrested in October 2017, then-acting Eastern District U.S. Attorney Bridget Rohde said: “Over a period of more than four years, the defendants attempted to cover up the assault of a handcuffed prisoner by Burke by obstructing the federal grand jury investigation and, when they learned the scope of the investigation expanded into an investigation of obstructive conduct, the defendants then attempted to obstruct the obstruction investigation.”

But defense attorneys say their clients did nothing wrong.

“Tom Spota has committed no crime…in fact, for many years of a long and distinguished career, Tom has worked hard to investigate and prosecute crime and deliver justice to the residents of Suffolk County,” Spota’s lead attorney, Alan Vinegrad, has said.

McPartland’s lead attorney, Larry Krantz, has said that his client “has always been an honest and dedicated public servant. He vehemently denies the charges and asserts his innocence. He looks forward to his day in court.”

In the walk-up to the trial, a jury pool of over 400 people were called to the federal courthouse in Central Islip because of the publicity the case has generated, with a lengthy questionnaire asking the potential jurors whether they had “any connection” with almost 100 people, including several prominent Long Island politicians.

Among those politicians are Levy, Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone, Suffolk Democratic leader Richard Schaffer, former Sheriff Vincent DeMarco and Rep. Kathleen Rice — a former Nassau County district attorney. Not everyone is expected to testify.

Federal prosecutors have said their case rests, not on the actions of any prominent politicians, but on the premise that the two defendants arranged “for high-ranking members of the SCPD and union officials to interact with potential witnesses … to gather further information and control the flow of information.”

In the papers, federal prosecutors have gone into some detail about how they allege the attempted cover-up worked and identified the background of some of their key witnesses, without naming them.

In addition, prosecutors have said their two key witnesses against Spota and McPartland are former unnamed members of the Suffolk police department who are cooperating with the government after pleading guilty to obstruction of justice, along with “dozens of witnesses … fully corroborated by numerous sources of evidence … including telephone call detail records, cell site records, photographs, financial records…” the papers say.

At one point in the alleged cover-up, in June 2015, “Cooperating Defendant #1” met with Burke, McPartland and Spota in Spota’s Hauppauge office, and McPartland thought one unnamed Suffolk police officer might be cooperating with federal investigators, according to federal court papers. “Spota told Cooperating Defendant #1 that if [that officer] was a rat, Cooperating Defendant #1 had better find out fast.”

Spota said that any police officer cooperating with federal investigators was “dead” and that “they would never work in Suffolk County again,” the papers filed by federal prosecutors said.

The June 2015 meeting in Spota’s office occurred when word got around that a federal investigation into Burke’s alleged beating of Loeb — which had been dormant — had been reopened.

Spota “went nuts” and initially said “it was not possible” that the investigation had been reopened, according to prosecutors in the papers.

Meetings that were involved in the cover-up, according to prosecutors in court papers, occurred at an athletic field in Yaphank next to county police headquarters; in Spota’s office; at a wake in Farmingdale; at an unnamed high school in Smithtown; at an unnamed Asian restaurant in St. James; and at the parking lot of St. Patrick’s Church in Smithtown.

While Spota’s administration of his office has drawn criticism for a number of issues — such as not prosecuting former Suffolk County Conservative Party leader Edward Walsh on corruption charges, which federal authorities eventually did; or not aggressively pursuing the shooting of cabdriver Thomas Moroughan by an off-duty Nassau police officer — others take a different view.

“This case] is going to be the lead of the obituary and it shouldn’t be,” said Eric Naiburg, a longtime prominent Suffolk County defense attorney.

Naiburg, who started as a young assistant district attorney in the Suffolk DA’s office at the same time as Spota, said “he did a lot of good for the people of Suffolk County,” noting among other actions, a report on abuse by some Roman Catholic clergy and prosecutions of both Democratic and Republican politicians.

But Loeb’s attorney, Bruce Barket, said, “The allegations about the cover-up of Burke’s assault of a prisoner weren’t surprising to me, but Tom Spota’s involvement was,” Barket said. “I had always found him to be professional and courteous.”

Spota and McPartland each have been released on $500,000 bond since their 2017 arrests. They would face up to 20 years in prison if convicted.

Azrack has said she intends to start the trial on Tuesday, with the final jury selection to be followed by opening statements.

Eastern District assistant U.S. attorneys Lara Treinis Gatz, Nicole Boeckmann, Justina Geraci, and Michael Maffei declined to comment on the upcoming trial, as have Spota’s attorneys, Vinegrad, Erin Monju, and Sarah LeMaster; and McPartland’s attorneys, Krantz, Bradley Gershel and Lisa Cahill.

Who's who in the trial

The defendants

Thomas Spota: Longest-serving district attorney in Suffolk County history — elected four times; served for nearly 16 years before resigning after indictment. Joined Suffolk District Attorney's Office as assistant district attorney in 1971 and rose to chief trial prosecutor. In private practice, he represented police unions and police officers. First elected district attorney in 2001. Graduate of Fairfield University in Connecticut and St. John’s University School of Law.

Christopher McPartland: Head of anti-corruption unit in Spota's office, starting in 2005. Graduate of Georgetown University and Hofstra Law School. Winner of the Robert M. Morgenthau award of New York State District Attorneys Association in 2013 and Thomas J. Spota Prosecutor of the Year Award from Suffolk County Police Department in 2015.

The charges: Spota and McPartland each pleaded not guilty to the same four federal felonies: conspiracy to tamper with witnesses and obstruct an official proceeding; witness tampering and obstruction of an official proceeding; obstruction of justice; and accessory after the fact to the deprivation of John Doe’s civil rights.

The victim

Christopher Loeb: A heroin addict and petty thief who in 2012 broke into then-Suffolk police Chief James Burke’s SUV and stole a duffel bag. Originally sentenced to 3 years in prison, but the sentence was vacated after Burke pleaded guilty to assaulting him. Currently, he is facing charges growing out of a reckless driving incident, according to his attorney, Bruce Barket.

Main protagonists

James Burke: Former Suffolk police chief of department. A longtime protégé of Spota and a colleague and friend of McPartland. Served most of a 46-month federal prison sentence in connection with Loeb's beating.

Joan Azrack: Named a U.S. District Court judge in 2014. Before that, a U.S. magistrate for 24 years, and deputy chief of the Criminal Division in the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Eastern District of New York. Graduate of Rutgers and New York Law School. Presided over the corruption trials of former Nassau County Executive Edward Mangano and his wife, Linda.

Lara Treinis Gatz: Main federal prosecutor. Assistant U.S. attorney. Special counsel EDNY. 18-year veteran of EDNY. Graduate of Ithaca College and Brooklyn Law School.

Alan Vinegrad: Lead Spota attorney. Partner at Covington & Burling in New York. Former acting U.S. attorney for the Eastern District; federal prosecutor 1990-1997, 1998-2002. Clerked for two federal judges. Graduate of Wharton School at University of Pennsylvania and New York University School of Law.

Larry Krantz: Lead McPartland attorney. Partner at Krantz & Berman in New York. Former assistant U.S. attorney for the Eastern District. Clerked for a federal judge. Graduate of Stony Brook University and Brooklyn Law School.

Comments

We're revamping our Comments section. Learn more and share your input.

Latest Long Island News