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Feds probe district attorney bonuses in Suffolk, source says

Suffolk County executive Steve Bellone, on steps of

Suffolk County executive Steve Bellone, on steps of the the district attorney's office in Hauppauge on Thursday, Oct. 26, 2017, where he called for Thomas Spota to resign and Suffolk County legislator William J. Lindsay III, looks on. Credit: James Carbone

The U.S. attorney’s office in Brooklyn has issued a subpoena to the Suffolk County comptroller for information about bonuses paid by District Attorney Thomas Spota’s office to top employees with asset forfeiture money, according to a county source with knowledge of the subpoena.

The federal subpoena was dated Oct. 13, the source said.

John Marzulli, spokesman for the U.S. attorney for the Eastern District, said the office “does not confirm or deny the existence of an investigation.”

Robert Clifford, a spokesman for Spota, who announced Thursday he is leaving office after his indictment on federal charges involving a cover-up of a former police official’s assault of a suspect, said the district attorney’s office “has not received federal subpoenas related to the payments you cite.”

Specific information about what the subpoena sought was not available.

Spota’s office has paid a total of $2.7 million in bonuses since 2012 using an asset forfeiture fund, according to documents released this month. The payments had not been budgeted or approved by the Suffolk legislature, although the district attorney’s office said that is unnecessary.

Asset forfeiture money comes from assets seized during criminal investigations. The money typically goes to fund new law enforcement technologies and drug treatment programs.

Suffolk Comptroller John Kennedy, a Republican, said he would cooperate with any outside investigation.

“My research so far seems to indicate that it’s a permissive use of state asset forfeiture funds,” Kennedy said of the district attorney’s practice.

The annual bonus payments began in April 2012, and were approved by former Comptroller Joe Sawicki and later by Kennedy. Sawicki, a Republican who works as a Suffolk assistant police commissioner, did not return calls for comment.

District Attorney Division Chief Edward Heilig has said the bonuses were initiated to keep up with rapidly escalating county police salaries and were based on factors that included merit and working more than 35 hours a week.

Heilig said expenditures from the asset forfeiture fund don’t need legislative approval because they come from seized property. Heilig said other expenditures to pay for police overtime and for an East End emergency communications system also have been made without legislative approval.

The payments were made from a county general fund account and were reimbursed by the district attorney’s office with asset forfeiture money.

On Wednesday, Spota and Christopher McPartland, head of the district attorney’s political corruption unit, were indicted on unrelated federal charges involving a cover-up of former Suffolk Police Chief James Burke’s assault of a suspect in 2012. Spota and McPartland pleaded not guilty in U.S. District Court in Central Islip.

Since 2016, McPartland received three bonuses worth $37,500, according to county comptroller records.

Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone, in a letter to Kennedy about the bonuses last Friday, said “it is not clear” under what authority the payments were made.

Bellone said an interview Thursday, “It looks like these payments, that were made in secret, have not been made in a manner consistent with the county code.”

Legis. William Lindsay III (D-Bohemia) and Legis. Kara Hahn (D-Setauket) also have written to Kennedy requesting more information about the bonus payments.

Hahn said compensation for public employees should be set during the budget process. “If you don’t think people are paid what they’re worth, you have to come to the legislature and convince us,” she said in an interview.

Kennedy said he initiated audits of police, sheriff and probation earlier this year, as lawmakers raised questions about how the funds were being used. He began an audit of the DA’s fund around September, he said.

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