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Schaffer: Spota boosted Burke's bid for Suffolk police chief of department

Former Suffolk County District Attorney Thomas Spota, left,

Former Suffolk County District Attorney Thomas Spota, left, and former aide Christopher McPartland arrive in U.S. District Court in Central Islip on Monday. Credit: Composite photo: John Roca

This story was reported by Nicole Fuller, Robert E. Kessler, Bridget Murphy and Michael O'Keeffe. It was written by Murphy.

Suffolk Democratic Party chairman Richard Schaffer testified Monday that then-District Attorney Thomas Spota raved about James Burke’s "outstanding leadership" after an anonymous letter warned that Burke — then trying to be top uniformed cop — frequented prostitutes, one of whom had stolen his gun.

The political leader's testimony kicked off the second week in the federal trial of Spota and one of his former chief aides, Christopher McPartland, on charges that include obstruction of justice and witness tampering.

Schaffer said in U.S. District Court in Central Islip that he introduced Burke to Steve Bellone, then Suffolk's county executive-elect, before getting the anonymous letter in December 2011 as Burke lobbied to become chief of department for Suffolk police.

Federal prosecutors say Spota and McPartland orchestrated a cover-up with Burke starting nearly a year after his appointment as chief to try to protect him after he beat a burglary suspect who stole a duffel bag from his police vehicle in December 2012.

Schaffer, who serves as Town of Babylon supervisor and historically has been a close ally of Spota, said Burke was very involved in Spota’s first run for district attorney in 2001 and that the two had a father-and-son type of relationship.

Schaffer testified he didn't seek Burke's police internal affairs file before introducing him to Bellone but felt good about bringing the two together because Spota backed Burke, then his longtime chief investigator. 

The prosecution witness added that Spota sent a December 2011 letter to Bellone's transition team defending Burke in response to the anonymous letter’s allegations.

The anonymous letter indicated it was written by "dedicated hard working members" of the Suffolk police department, Newsday reported in 2016.

Schaffer recalled that part of Spota's response to the criticism was that he had known Burke "for years" and for a decade had "entrusted him with overseeing law enforcement operations" in the district attorney's office.

Spota also wrote Burke was his chief investigator “because of his outstanding leadership," and said Burke’s gun had been stolen during a burglary at Burke's home in the early 1990s, Schaffer testified.

The anonymous letter had claimed Burke carried out a “home invasion” to get back his service gun when one of the prostitutes he patronized stole it, the witness said.

But the return letter from Spota to Bellone's transition team also said there were no reports or witnesses regarding the alleged home invasion, Schaffer testified Monday.

Spota, 78, of Mount Sinai, and McPartland, 53, of Northport, have pleaded not guilty to charges of conspiracy, obstruction of justice, witness tampering and acting as accessories to the deprivation of the civil rights of Christopher Loeb after his beating by Burke.

An indictment also alleges that Spota, McPartland, Burke and others used intimidation and threats to pressure one or more witnesses not to cooperate with a federal probe into Loeb's assault, and to provide false information and withhold information from authorities.

The beating happened after Loeb, then 26, stole a duffel bag from Burke’s police vehicle that contained a gun belt, magazines of ammunition, a box of cigars, sex toys, pornography and Viagra, according to prosecutors.

But attorneys for the defendants insist Burke never admitted to their clients he had assaulted Loeb, countering the government’s theory that Spota and McPartland knew Burke was guilty of the beating and tried to help him conceal it.

In November 2016, a judge sentenced Burke to 46 months in prison for the attack on Loeb and carrying out a cover-up. The former chief served most of his sentence before his release last year to home confinement.

Schaffer acknowledged Monday during a cross-examination by Spota's attorney, Alan Vinegrad, that he introduced Burke to Bellone as Burke sought to become chief because he thought Burke was competent and an "innovative leader." Schaffer acknowledged that Bellone told him afterward that he loved Burke.  

Schaffer said he talked to Burke several times about the Loeb investigation, which Burke at first called "bullshit." 

The witness also said that when authorities reopened a probe into the beating, Burke said federal officials were targeting him because he had pulled Suffolk police from federal task forces.

But that September, Schaffer testified, a very distraught Burke admitted to him while in tears that he had assaulted Loeb.

Suffolk probation officer Daniel Buckley testified Monday he saw Burke in the basement of Loeb's home searching around with a flashlight after law enforcement officials went to the Smithtown residence and arrested Loeb on the day of the burglary.

Buckley, who said he handcuffed Loeb in the woods, said he later found Burke's gunbelt in the house — where two detectives from the police force's criminal intelligence unit were among those who came to search for Burke's belongings.

Monday's testimony came to an early close Monday after McPartland suffered what he told a reporter was an allergic reaction, one that brought emergency responders to the courthouse.

But before that unexpected event, retired Suffolk police Sgt. Vincent Posillico also took the witness stand Monday. He testified that Spota was Burke's lawyer when Burke, who he said was known as "Starsky" on the street, faced internal police discipline years before becoming chief.

The ex-internal affairs official said he investigated misconduct claims against Burke when Burke was a sergeant, leveling a charge of "conduct unbecoming an officer" against him that the department found to be "substantiated."

Posillico said he wrote a memo detailing allegations that Burke had a "personal, sexual relationship" with felon and known prostitute Lowrita Rickenbacker that included having sex in his police vehicle on duty.

Rickenbacker also had Burke's service weapon at one point, according to Posillico's memo.

As punishment, Burke lost 15 vacation days — a deal laid out in a February 1995 document that Spota signed as Burke's attorney and that prosecutor Lara Treinis Gatz displayed Monday in court.

Posillico also said Burke filed a report saying his .380-caliber Beretta service weapon was lost or stolen from an "unknown location" between Sept. 26, 1993 and Oct. 3, 1993. Burke then reported on Oct. 4, 1993, that "his misplaced firearm" had been located in his home, the witness said.

Posillico added that Burke’s report about his missing gun "corroborated" Rickenbacker’s story.

Rickenbacker said she borrowed Burke's car after the two met at a diner prior his shift, before she said she needed to run home and asked to borrow his car, Posillico recalled.

The Wyandanch woman then drove Burke's car, with his uniform, gun belt and service weapon in the back seat, to her home to smoke crack, the retired sergeant said of her account.

Rickenbacker said she brought the gun inside her house and put Burke's other items in the car's trunk, before Burke came by later and she gave the gun back, Posillico said.

He said the gun mentioned in the 2011 letter Spota wrote in response to the anonymous letter about Burke was a different weapon than the one involved in the 1993 incident related to Rickenbacker.

In 1994, Burke filed a report alleging that an unknown person broke into his house and stole one of his personal guns, an account Posillico said he thought was consistent with the gun mentioned in Spota's letter.

The former sergeant admitted that he stored copies of a Burke internal affairs memo and other reports at home to do late-night work and shared the Burke document with then-Newsday reporter Tania Lopez after his retirement.

Lopez detailed Burke's internal affairs history in a 2013 story.

During a cross-examination, Posillico told Spota's attorney that he should have returned internal affairs documents when he retired.

Posillico also admitted that Burke initially had another attorney before Spota represented him on the department charges.

But the witness again linked Spota to Burke's disciplinary history when the prosecution questioned him again.

“When James Burke pleaded guilty to those things, who was his attorney?” Gatz asked.

“Thomas Spota,” Posillico replied.

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