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Officials: Leonard Lato, defense attorney, ex-prosecutor, found dead

Leonard Lato in 2015.

Leonard Lato in 2015. Credit: James Carbone

Leonard Lato, a veteran litigator who served as both prosecutor and defense attorney in some of Suffolk County’s most high-profile cases, was found dead Monday on an ocean beach in Quogue, officials said Tuesday.

Quogue Village police said they responded to a 911 call shortly after 1 p.m. Monday and found the body of Lato, 62, of Quogue, near the surf line of an ocean beach on Dune Road.

Police Chief Christopher Isola said the death does not appear to be criminal. It was not immediately clear if Lato, who friends say was an avid daily ocean swimmer, drowned or had a medical episode. The Suffolk County medical examiner will perform an autopsy.

Lato leaves behind a legacy of work on a broad range of notable cases in state and local courts-litigating on behalf of the government before switching to the defense.

As an assistant U.S. attorney, he helped to successfully prosecute the Pagan Motorcycle club on racketeering charges as well as Michael Swango, a serial killer and former physician convicted of poisoning patients at the Veterans Affairs Medical Cernter in Northport. As an assistant Suffolk County district attorney, Lato defended the appeal of the conviction of Martin Tankleff for the 1988 murder of his parents, a conviction that was overturned in 2007.

As a defense lawyer, Lato represented former Suffolk Conservative Party boss Edward Walsh, who was convicted of illegally pocketing more than $200,000 in salary and overtime in his job as a lieutenant in the county sheriff’s office.

Mineola attorney Edward Jenks described Lato as a brilliant attorney and gifted appellate writer who was deeply loyal to his close friends. Lato, he said, would call him every day as he recovered from brain surgery related to his Parkinson’s disease diagnosis.

“He was loyal, direct and honest to a fault,” Jenks said. “There was no one like him.”

Lato is survived by his wife, lawyer Karla Aschmoneit, and three daughters, Kimberly Lato, Stephanie Lato, and Jennifer Lato.

“He was a great father, a great husband and a great lawyer,” said Stephanie Lato in a brief interview Tuesday.

Leonard Lato was a Brooklyn native and graduate of SUNY Binghamton. He received a law degree from St. John’s University School of Law, where he was an editor of the law review.

Lato spent 13 years as an assistant U.S. attorney in the Eastern District from 1990 to 2003 and seven years, from 2003 to 2010, as chief of the insurance crimes bureau with the Suffolk County district attorney’s office. In 2010, Lato left the district attorney’s office and opened a criminal defense firm, first in Central Islip and later in Hauppauge.

Legis. Robert Trotta (R-Fort Salonga), a close friend of nearly 20 years, recalled Lato as an incredible storyteller who would often leave his friends and colleagues scratching their heads. Lato, he said, would swim a mile on Quogue beaches every day in a wet suit — even in the winter months — would shower outdoors year-round, and once jumped off his shed into his pool.

“There’s a thousand Lenny stories,” Trotta said. “He was so much fun.”

Hauppauge defense lawyer Anthony La Pinta, also a longtime friend, said Lato had a “profound sense of justice and was an advocate for the underdog.”

In 2016, Lato successfully argued for the dismissal of charges against Carlos Pino, an Old Bethpage limousine driver involved in a July 2015 crash that killed four young women on Route 48 in Cutchogue. Lato had filed a motion arguing that the indictment against Pino was invalid because it was improperly presented to the grand jury.

He also defended former Suffolk Legis. George Guldi, who was sentenced to 4 to 12 years in prison for grand larceny and insurance fraud, and Smithtown real estate investor Joseph Valerio, who was convicted in 2014 of child pornography charges.

Lato later represented the county when Tankleff sued in federal court in 2009 and argued that the detectives who investigated the murder fabricated a false confession and suppressed exculpatory evidence. Earlier this year Suffolk lawmakers approved a $10 million settlement for Tankleff.

“Despite being on opposing sides of a few cases, I always liked him,” said Tankleff attorney Bruce Barket. “He was blunt, smart and funny.”

Correction: Bruce Barket is an attorney for Martin Tankleff. An earlier version of this story misspelled Barket's name.

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