Federal authorities are investigating how the Suffolk County District Attorney’s Office used asset forfeiture funds in undercover money laundering operations during the administrations of ex-District Attorneys Thomas Spota and Timothy Sini, according to a letter from a top official in the district attorney’s office.
The letter was written by Allen Bode, the chief assistant to Suffolk County District Attorney Ray Tierney, and details the “ongoing federal criminal investigation” into the use of federal asset forfeiture proceeds in undercover money laundering operations that he said began under Spota and continued under the Sini administration.
The investigation by the U.S. Attorney's Office in Los Angeles and the FBI halted the district attorney's office’s access to federal asset forfeiture funds — monetary proceeds from crime that are seized by law enforcement agencies and supposed to be used to deter crime and compensate victims — for more than two years, officials said.
“As a result of the malfeasance of the prior administrations’ seizure and subsequent usage of money and property seized in criminal cases and how such money was then used, the SCDAO’s asset forfeiture funds have been frozen for the past two and one-half years,” Bode wrote in an April 14 letter to Smithtown Supervisor Edward Wehrheim, while urging the supervisor to terminate the employment of John Barry, the chief investigator in the district attorney's office under Sini. Barry had been hired as a park ranger for the town.
WHAT TO KNOW
- Federal authorities are investigating how the Suffolk County District Attorney’s Office used asset forfeiture funds in undercover money laundering operations, a top Suffolk prosecutor says in a letter.
- The probe covers the activities during the administrations of former District Attorneys Thomas Spota and Timothy Sini, said Allen Bode, a top aide to Suffolk District Attorney Ray Tierney.
- Sini acknowledged the investigation, saying the office had complied with a subpoena seeking documents while he was district attorney, but dismissed any allegation of impropriety.
- An attorney for Spota, who is currently serving a five-year federal prison sentence for his 2019 conviction on conspiracy, obstruction of justice and other charges in the cover-up of a police beating of a handcuffed prisoner, did not respond to a message seeking comment.
“The forfeiture activities currently under federal criminal investigation were originally instituted under the Spota administration and then halted," Bode wrote. "However, from 2018 to 2020, John Barry resumed the forfeiture practices whereby he directed and authorized the use of these federal forfeiture program funds to undercover money laundering operations.”
Complying with subpoena
Sini, in a written statement, acknowledged the investigation, saying the office had complied with a subpoena seeking documents while he was district attorney, but dismissed any allegation of impropriety.
“This is a politically motivated letter not grounded in truth,” said Sini, who is now a partner at a white-collar law firm after losing his 2021 reelection bid to Tierney. “With respect to the asset forfeiture reference, in 2020 we received a request for documents dating back to 2003 (15 years before the start of my administration and 20 years from today) regarding money laundering investigations the DA’s Office did in partnership with the Drug Enforcement Administration. We complied with that request fully, and there has never been any allegation that anyone in my administration did anything improper. All of our activities were approved and done in connection with DEA, and any asset forfeiture funds spent were spent properly and disclosed to the Department of Justice.”
Alan Vinegrad, an attorney for Spota, who is currently serving a five-year federal prison sentence for his 2019 conviction on conspiracy, obstruction of justice and other charges in the cover-up of a police beating of a handcuffed prisoner, did not respond to a message seeking comment.
Internal review of asset forfeiture policy
Tierney, in an interview Wednesday, said his office learned of the investigation shortly before taking office in January 2022 and performed its own internal review of asset forfeiture practices, which resulted in a new policy that asset forfeiture money can only be spent with approval from Bode or the office’s general counsel or special counsel.
“The federal government stopped the practices that were ongoing and improper and we have not resumed those practices nor would we ever regardless of the federal government,” said Tierney, who declined to detail the alleged practices, citing the ongoing federal investigation. “We did institute additional controls to ensure that any asset forfeiture spending are both ethical and done pursuant to the rules of the equitable sharing programs.”
In April, after Tierney sought assistance from Democratic Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer and Republican Reps. Andrew Garbarino and Nick LaLota, federal authorities unfroze about 1/6th of the funds — or about $2.2 million — but the district attorney’s office is still not allowed to participate in the program, Tierney said.
Tierney said the loss of the funding impacts the office’s ability to buy surveillance equipment, training and software “that assist in our investigations.” Tierney also pointed to the county’s resurrected ShotSpotter program as an example of how his office would have spent the asset forfeiture funds.
“All of the factual assertions in that letter are accurate and verifiably accurate,” Tierney said when asked about Sini’s assertion of political motivations.
Tierney, a former federal prosecutor who ran on the Republican and Conservative lines, unseated then-incumbent Sini, a Democrat who was also a federal prosecutor previously, in the November 2021 election.
Thom Mrozek, a spokesman for U.S. Attorney E. Martin Estrada of the Central District of California, wrote in an email, “I have no comment” when asked about Bode’s letter.
The FBI declined to comment.
The Bode letter
Newsday obtained Bode’s letter through a Freedom of Information Act request.
In the letter, Bode told the Smithtown supervisor it would be a “serious problem” if Barry were ever to testify in a criminal case because of what Bode said was his “demonstrable history of law enforcement misconduct” — allegations that Bode detailed in the letter. Bode said it would make it “difficult, if not impossible, to effectively prosecute any of his arrests.”
The letter also alleges that Barry, a former first deputy police commissioner in Suffolk County, forfeited 20 vacation days as a result of an NYPD Internal Affairs investigation that charged him with “striking a handcuffed prisoner on the head and face with a flashing, causing injury” in 1993.
Wehrheim did not respond to a message Wednesday. Barry did not respond to a message seeking comment.
Sini on Wednesday denied any suggestion that he had continued Spota’s practice of paying staff bonuses — to the tune of $3.25 million — with state asset forfeiture funds.
“Under the Spota administration, they had a practice of using asset forfeiture funds to pay ADAs bonuses,” Sini said. “When I took office, we stopped that practice.”
Sini also said that Tierney still employs the longtime head of asset forfeiture, Craig D. Pavlik, the bureau chief of the district attorney's Finance and Asset Forfeiture Bureau. Pavlik has worked as the bureau chief overseeing asset forfeiture since January 2019, according to his LinkedIn page, and was the “attorney in charge” of the bureau for the previous 16½ years.
“The person who was in charge of how asset forfeiture was spent under my administration is still in charge of it today,” Sini said, referring to Pavlik.
Tierney said Pavlik was not involved in the money laundering operations that are the subject of the federal probe.
“Everyone who was responsible for the implementation of that plan was gone by Jan. 1,” said Tierney, referring to the day he took office in 2022.