Suffolk County District Attorney Thomas Spota’s mentoring of James Burke spans almost four decades — long before he was elected to the first of his record four terms in office.
Spota was a homicide prosecutor then, under District Attorney Patrick Henry. In 1979, he tried four young men charged with killing John Pius, a Smithtown boy who died when other teenagers crammed rocks down his throat.
That is when he met Burke, a teenage prosecution witness who would later become chief of department for Suffolk police. Spota became his guide and confidant over the years.
Even after Spota left the district attorney’s office in 1982 to become a private attorney, he helped nurture Burke’s career in the police department. Spota, at the time, served as legal counsel to the Suffolk Detectives Association, the union that represents detectives.
Burke rose through the department’s ranks, even as the department’s Internal Affairs unit found it credible that Burke, then a sergeant, had sex with a prostitute in his police car and twice lost his gun to her, according to an Internal Affairs report.
After Spota became district attorney in 2002, he put Burke in charge of the office’s detective investigators. And when County Executive Steve Bellone was looking to appoint a new chief of department, he accepted Spota’s recommendation to hire Burke, even though others in the department warned Bellone in a letter not to do so.
Finally, it was Burke’s arrest on charges of civil rights violations and orchestrating a cover-up of the beating of Christopher Loeb that turned attention to Spota’s and Assistant District Attorney Christopher McPartland’s roles in that.
Spota, who lives in Mount Sinai, grew up in New Hyde Park. He joined the Suffolk district attorney’s office in 1971, five years after he graduated from St. John’s University law school.
He became chief of the office’s Major Offense Bureau, which then handled homicides.
When the State Investigative Commission conducted hearings concerning brutality and corruption in Suffolk law enforcement in 1987, Spota defended those called before the commission. Former Suffolk County Court Judge Stuart Namm, whose accusations helped create the commission, saw Spota as the establishment’s defender.
“Tom Spota — he’s their god,” Namm said in 2014, referring to police. “A horse doesn’t change colors.”
In 2001, the longtime Republican ran as a Democrat and defeated District Attorney James Catterson Jr., who had lost the favor of police unions.
Catterson tried to make an issue of Spota’s deep ties to police and police unions, saying he would have a blind spot on police misconduct.
Spota said then: “If there is a rogue police officer, I will be the first person to ensure that he is prosecuted. I don’t think any police officer or anybody who is helping me in my campaign expects anything else.”
CORRECTION: The name of the union that represents detectives was incorrect in a previous version of this story.