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Spota, McPartland convicted on all counts in federal obstruction trial

A federal jury on Tuesday convicted former Suffolk District Attorney Thomas Spota and one of his ex-chief aides, Christopher McPartland, of felony charges related to the attempted cover-up of a 2012 prisoner beating by Spota’s longtime protege, former Police Chief James Burke. (Credit: Newsday / Yeong-Ung Yang; Jim Staubitser)

Former Suffolk District Attorney Thomas Spota, who ascended to the pinnacle of power as the county's top law enforcement official on an anti-corruption platform nearly two decades ago, on Tuesday joined the ranks of the felons he once prosecuted when a federal jury convicted him and an ex-top aide of concealing police brutality.

Spota won his former position in a 2001 election with political support from police after advocating for law enforcement officials as a private-practice attorney and working hand-in-hand with them as an up-and-coming homicide prosecutor.

But after a more than 15-year tenure as district attorney, it was his decadeslong loyalty to one cop — former Suffolk Police Chief James Burke — that led to his downfall.

A jury in U.S. District Court in Central Islip found — after about seven hours of deliberations — that Spota and Christopher McPartland, his former anti-corruption unit chief, orchestrated a cover-up of Burke's beating of a handcuffed prisoner in a police precinct in 2012.

The panel convicted the defendants on all counts in their 2017 indictment: conspiracy, obstruction of justice, witness tampering and acting as accessories to the deprivation of the civil rights of that prisoner, Christopher Loeb.

The law, jury forewoman Cathy Duque said later, should apply equally to everyone — the principle she said guided her decision to convict the defendants.

"There is not one individual that is above the law. … We all need to be conscious of ethical behavior, and particularly when there's leadership involved," Duque added.

The Suffolk County resident also said "there was some discussion" about the case among jurors but "not that much" difference of opinion.

The verdict was swift, delivered after deliberations over two days in the sixth week of the trial before U.S. District Judge Joan Azrack. Before its decision, the jury had sent notes to the judge asking to review testimony from the government's star witness and from a former county prosecutor who initially handled Loeb's case.

Both defendants stayed stone-faced in court while the forewoman announced the verdict.

After the jury left, Spota hugged his wife and his daughter, who was crying. Then he and his defense attorney, Alan Vinegrad, left the courtroom without commenting.

"We're very disappointed," Spota's wife told Newsday.

McPartland also didn't comment before leaving with his attorney, Larry Krantz.

"There are many more steps in the process and we will continue to fight," Krantz said.

The government contended during the trial that Spota’s determination to keep Burke out of jail after the top uniformed cop assaulted Loeb led him to abandon his duty as Suffolk's chief law enforcement officer and carry out a three-year conspiracy to cover up the beating.

Burke, in 2016, pleaded guilty to the beating and cover-up. But in some ways, the trial became the one Burke never had, with two of the detectives who took part in the beating testifying about the assault on Loeb and how pressure to keep quiet about it changed their lives and careers.

"I'm ecstatic," Loeb said in an interview at the courthouse minutes after the verdict. 

Spota, Loeb said, "allowed Jimmy Burke to rise up the ranks knowing how much of an evil man he is."

He added: "To hear that he's guilty on all charges … it's like this dark cloud has been lifted."

Spota and McPartland are facing up to 20 years in prison under the law but likely will receive less severe sentences. 

Eastern District U.S. Attorney Richard Donoghue said outside the courthouse that the verdict, along with other recent federal prosecutions of local elected officials, "make it clear that the days of Long Island's good old boys networks … are dead and gone." 

He said Spota, McPartland and Burke had been the "three most powerful state law enforcement officers in Suffolk.” 

Long Island's top federal prosecutor then added: “They thought they were untouchable. But they were wrong."

Donoghue also said the team of prosecutors who tried the case for his office — assistant U.S. attorney Nicole Boeckmann, chief of the office's Long Island criminal division, and her colleagues Lara Treinis Gatz, Justina Geraci and Michael Maffei — “brought the truth from the shadows and out into the light." He added it had been "gutsy" for the government to take on a district attorney.

Suffolk Police Commissioner Geraldine Hart said in a statement that Spota, McPartland and Burke "focused on corruption and cover-ups" rather than "supporting the proud men and women of this department."

Hart said her agency is in contact with federal prosecutors, examining all trial testimony and evidence and "will take appropriate action if warranted" upon further review.

Treinis Gatz told jurors in the prosecution’s closing argument that Spota was the “CEO” of the conspiracy while McPartland, Spota’s former right-hand man, was the scheme’s “chief operating officer” as they broke the law they were supposed to enforce.

But the defense had said at trial that Spota, 78, of Mount Sinai, and McPartland, 54, of Northport, couldn’t have tried to conceal Burke’s guilt because the former police chief never confessed to them before admitting his crimes in February 2016 in federal court.

Burke served most of a 46-month prison sentence before his release to home confinement last year. 

"I think he's happy this whole thing is over with," Burke's former attorney, Joseph Conway, said Tuesday of the ex-chief. "He might not be happy with the results, but he can start moving on to the next chapter of his life." 

Loeb’s assault at the Fourth Precinct in Hauppauge on Dec. 14, 2012, happened hours after the now-recovering heroin addict broke into Burke’s department vehicle in St. James and stole a Police Athletic League duffel bag.

The duffel, which prosecutors dubbed Burke’s “party bag,” had items inside it that included his gun belt, ammunition, a box of cigars, police union cards, sex toys, pornography and Viagra, testimony showed.

Much of the government’s case rested on star prosecution witness James Hickey, a retired Suffolk police lieutenant who had headed the department’s criminal intelligence unit. He testified that he was a middleman in the conspiracy who ensured the silence of three of his detectives who had taken part in Loeb’s beating with Burke.

Hickey tied the defendants directly to the conspiracy with testimony that included his recall of a June 2015 meeting in Spota’s office that took place after federal officials relaunched a probe into Loeb’s beating after their initial investigation fell flat in 2013.

Word of the reopened civil rights probe put Spota in a panic, according to Hickey, who said the district attorney grilled him on who he believed had “flipped,” or begun cooperating with federal officials.

“Somebody’s talking. You better find out fast, if it’s not too late,” Hickey testified Spota also told him that day.

Hickey said he retired shortly before pleading guilty in January 2016 to conspiracy to obstruct justice and hoped to avoid jail time because of his role as a cooperating government witness.

He named Spota, McPartland, Burke, former chief of detectives William Madigan and himself as members of a group nicknamed “The Inner Circle,” 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.

Hickey also identified Cliff Lent, another detective, detectives' union official Russ McCormack and the three detectives who had taken part in Loeb’s beating as participants in the cover-up.

But the defense portrayed Hickey as a mentally unstable drunk and serial philanderer who lied repeatedly to his wife and committed perjury years ago when testifying in a burglary case that a Suffolk judge threw out.

Krantz, in his closing argument, ticked off a list of “10 reasons why James Hickey cannot be believed” that included “perjury,” “raw self-interest” and a “psychotic break from reality.”

The ex-lieutenant testified about two hospitalizations he attributed to the pressure of making sure his detectives stayed quiet about Loeb’s beating.

One was in 2013 for pancreatitis caused by excessive alcohol intake and another was in 2015 for hallucinations brought on by stress and sleep loss, testimony showed.

During the trial, Spota’s attorney also insisted prosecutors had no credible evidence his client acted corruptly, saying the government’s case was based on “guilt by association” with Burke.

Vinegrad portrayed Burke as Spota’s “professional child of sorts” and his client as a wise elder who believed Burke’s contention that he didn’t beat Loeb and that federal officials were retaliating against him for taking Suffolk detectives off a joint gang task force.

McPartland’s attorney acknowledged that McPartland had a friendship with Burke but said Burke lied to McPartland — who “acted properly” and “obstructed nothing.”

Spota’s lawyer also said the allegation that Burke beat Loeb “seemed unbelievable at the time” because Loeb had a long rap sheet, was on drugs and it also seemed “crazy” that a chief would go into a precinct “in broad daylight” and assault a prisoner.

Vinegrad pointed out that testimony showed Spota told the assistant district attorney in McPartland’s unit who initially prosecuted Loeb’s larceny case, Spiros Moustakas, to document problems with the way police handled the case after the Smithtown man’s arrest.

Moustakas testified in part that Spota had advised him to note it in the court file after police asked for a search warrant for items they’d already seized from Loeb’s home and didn’t bring Loeb to court for his arraignment because of what they called a manpower crunch.

The jury had asked to see a transcript of Moustakas' entire testimony during deliberations.

Spota’s attorney told jurors that his client “had his chance to just sweep this under the rug” but instead sought a special prosecutor for Loeb’s case.

After prosecutors said the affidavit seeking a special prosecutor portrayed Burke as a crime victim and not a police brutality suspect, Vinegrad countered that Spota relied on subordinates to handle the paperwork.

“This is a cover-up? This is obstruction? Nonsense!” Vinegrad said in his trial summation.

The government emphasized the strong bond between Spota and Burke, starting when Burke was the star teenage witness in a murder case Spota was prosecuting.

Treinis Gatz also told jurors Spota had “a history of protecting and covering up for Jimmy Burke.”

She reminded the panel that Spota was Burke’s lawyer in the early 1990s when Burke got in trouble with internal affairs as a Suffolk cop in a matter that ended with a finding that Burke was guilty of conduct unbecoming an officer.

Spota knew that Burke in 1993 had a sexual relationship with a prostitute who got possession of his service weapon, but that “checkered past” didn’t stop Spota from later boosting Burke’s bid to become police chief, the prosecutor said.

She added that Spota wrote a letter in 2011 to County Executive-elect Steve Bellone’s transition team that raved of Burke’s “outstanding leadership” after an anonymous letter warned about Burke’s internal affairs history and tried to derail his promotion campaign. 

One of the detectives who participated in the Loeb beating, former Det. Anthony Leto, recalled Burke punching, kneeing and shaking Loeb by his ears while also threatening to give the then-heroin addict a “hot shot” — a deadly drug dose.

Before that, Leto said, he and detectives Kenneth Bombace and Michael Malone hit Loeb while trying to get him to confess.

Leto told jurors he retired in 2015 and later pleaded guilty to obstructing a federal investigation. He struggled to stay composed while testifying about how lying about the Loeb case helped destroy his marriage and his relationship with his children, while ending his career.

Leto said he testified falsely in a hearing in Loeb’s case and that he feared Suffolk police or prosecutors would fabricate criminal charges against him or his family if he didn’t go along with the cover-up.

Bombace, now retired, testified that he stashed his family at a hotel before testifying in October 2015 before a federal grand jury about the conspiracy.

The witness, who testified with an immunity deal, said he also had feared he or his family would be falsely accused of a crime if he testified honestly about Loeb’s beating from the start.

He described the assault as a “very chaotic” few minutes in a precinct interview room, with himself, Leto, Malone and Burke “cursing and screaming” as Burke punched Loeb.

The trio of detectives slapped Loeb before Burke came in the room, according to Bombace, who said the cover-up conspiracy began as soon as the beating ended.

Under an immunity deal, Suffolk Det. Brian Draiss testified that he feared crossing Burke. He said he purposely didn’t mention to the FBI, to a special prosecutor and during his testimony in Loeb’s case in state court that sex toys were among the items found in Burke's gym bag.

The witness said he went with probation officials to Loeb's home to assist them in a follow-up visit after an earlier discovery of metal knuckles there, before authorities coincidentally uncovered the spoils from Loeb's crime spree hours earlier.

Draiss, who said he later testified truthfully before a grand jury, told jurors Burke grabbed his bag in Loeb's bedroom and left with it.

During their first day of deliberations, jurors also asked to see a video of a Spota news conference in which he had criticized the media for endangering officer safety.

The criticism related to a story former Newsday reporter Tania Lopez wrote about a series of robberies that led to a probe by Spota's office into whether now-former Det. John Oliva was leaking confidential information to the media.

Oliva later pleaded guilty to official misconduct. His plea followed an investigation that included a wiretap.

It was a probe that Hickey testified really was about retaliating against Oliva after the same reporter wrote stories seen as critical of Burke — including an exposé about his internal affairs disciplinary history and a story about Suffolk detectives being removed from a federal gang task force.

Moustakas testified that Spota had spent hours listening to the Oliva wiretap. 

In 2012, Burke took Oliva, along with his fellow former detectives Robert Trotta, now a Suffolk legislator, and the late William Maldonado, off the task force.

Trotta applauded the guilty verdict in a statement Tuesday, saying he and Oliva "have been vindicated in our claims of corruption" in Suffolk government.

Moustakas, in another part of his testimony, also described a meeting with Spota, McPartland and Emily Constant, Spota's chief deputy, after Moustakas went to court for a Loeb case conference and Loeb's lawyer made police brutality allegations.

At the meeting, Spota became focused on an evidence photo of a porn video found in Loeb's house — where Burke had recovered his stolen bag — before Spota and Constant talked about "whether there would be fingerprints” on the video, Moustakas said.

Constant took the witness stand under a government subpoena, backing up the defense contention that Burke never admitted before his guilty plea that he had assaulted Loeb.

Constant admitted that she didn't want to see the defendants convicted and said she previously loaned McPartland $4,000 to put toward his legal defense.

The retired prosecutor briefly assumed Spota’s role after his resignation following his 2017 indictment.

Constant also described two meetings that included the defendants, one in 2013 at Spota’s home after federal subpoenas related to the Loeb case went out and another in 2015 at her home after Burke stepped down as chief.

She said Burke broke down in tears and denied any wrongdoing at both meetings.

But Boeckmann, the prosecutor, pressed Constant about why Spota held the 2013 meeting at his home on a weekday after the district attorney’s office already had handed Loeb’s case off to a special prosecutor.

The witness said it was a matter of convenience.

But Boeckmann told jurors later, as the prosecution closed its case, that the evidence showed Spota and McPartland had committed “a reprehensible crime.”

“They were the people charged with making sure justice was served … and they did just the opposite," she said.

With Michael O'Keeffe and Víctor Manuel Ramos

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