A defining characteristic of former Suffolk District Attorney Thomas Spota’s 46-year career as a criminal lawyer was his close relationship with the Suffolk County Police Department.
That relationship fueled his rise as an assistant district attorney to become chief of the Major Offense Bureau, in charge of all homicide prosecutions in the late 1970s and early 1980s.
It was the hallmark of his career as a private attorney, in which he represented the police detectives union and law enforcement officials who were charged with crimes.
In 2001, police union backing helped him defeat incumbent District Attorney James Catterson Jr. And by this year, Spota’s loyalty to his protégé, former Chief of Department James Burke, led to his own indictment on federal obstruction of justice and witness tampering charges, and his subsequent resignation. Before Burke was chief, he led Spota’s detective investigators for a decade.
“It is indeed ironic that his political fortunes came about as a result of his police union ties,” said Paul Gianelli, a Hauppauge attorney who was Spota’s supervisor in the district attorney’s office in the late 1970s and later an adversary as a defense lawyer. “His downfall was caused by his blind loyalty to a person with the Suffolk County police.”
Admirers cite Spota’s loyalty to police and his affection for them. They also say those traits may have prevented him from taking action against Burke.
“He surrounded himself with a good staff” as district attorney, said Steven Wilutis, a friend for most of Spota’s career. “Maybe that was his downfall — he was too loyal.”
Spota and Christopher McPartland, chief of his public corruption unit, were charged in October with obstruction of justice and witness tampering. Federal prosecutors say they helped Burke cover up his role in beating a man who had been arrested and charged with stealing items from Burke’s vehicle.
Spota and McPartland have pleaded not guilty and their attorneys have denied that either man did what prosecutors say.
Spota did not respond to requests for comment for this story made through his attorney, friends and his former office.
Spota’s journey to becoming Suffolk’s top law enforcement official began in 1971, when he left a small private law practice at age 30 to join the Suffolk district attorney’s office. Wilutis became an assistant district attorney in the office around the same time and befriended him.
“He was good on his feet,” Wilutis said. “He came across as clean-cut, honest. He hadn’t been in the military, yet he had a command presence in the courtroom.”
Spota was always tough, Wilutis recalled.
Often after work, some prosecutors played basketball with each other.
“Even though he was short, he was a good basketball player,” Wilutis said. “Tough. Tough. Always moving.”
Spota quickly moved into the Major Offense Bureau, which prosecuted homicides — including some of Long Island’s most noteworthy cases of the time.
By 1975, he was assisting Gerard Sullivan — later his private law partner — in the prosecution of Ronald DeFeo Jr. for the murder of six family members. It became known as the Amityville Horror case, and still inspires movies and books. DeFeo is serving a sentence of 25 years to life in prison.
Four years later, 13-year-old John Pius was strangled in his Smithtown neighborhood. His killers stuffed six rocks down his throat to keep him from screaming.
Spota won murder convictions against two of the four defendants, but after five successful appeals and eight trials, only one of the murder convictions survived. One defendant was never retried and the other two eventually pleaded guilty to lesser crimes.
Spota met Burke during that case. Burke, who was 14 years old at the time of the crime, testified that some of the defendants made admissions to him. It was the start of a relationship in which Spota mentored Burke and at times guided his law enforcement career.
“He always felt he could let his hair down around the police. He felt he was one of them,” Gianelli said, adding that prosecutors ought to remain independent of police. “It was a symbiotic relationship.”
That relationship continued after Spota left the district attorney’s office and joined Sullivan in private law practice in 1982.
In 1987, the Suffolk County Legislature’s Public Safety Committee called a public hearing about allegations by county police officers that a prosecutor had told them in 1982 that if they handed out Sullivan and Spota business cards to people they arrested they would get part of the legal fee. One officer testified he could make $100 per referral. Another said he heard detectives got as much as 30 percent of the fee.
Spota and Sullivan said at the time they were unaware this was happening.
The State Investigation Commission in 1989 had hearings on that issue and numerous others involving Suffolk law enforcement. In a report, the commission found the district attorney’s office made little effort to investigate whether police were improperly referring cases to Sullivan and Spota.
Spota also had success representing law enforcement officials charged with crimes. One was former homicide Det. K. James McCready, who was charged with beating a Rocky Point bar patron. Spota won an acquittal in 1993.
In 1999, Spota represented Suffolk Undersheriff Edward Morris, who was charged with 89 counts in a corruption investigation of the sheriff’s department by Catterson’s office. Then-Sheriff Patrick Mahoney also was charged with pressuring employees to make political contributions.
Morris pleaded guilty to defrauding the government, theft of services, using the jail for improper political activities and offering a false instrument for filing. He was sentenced to community service and ordered to pay a $10,000 fine; Mahoney paid a $3,000 fine.
By then, Spota, a Republican, had begun to explore the possibility of running for district attorney as a Democrat. Suffolk Democratic leader and Babylon Town Supervisor Richard Schaffer said Spota offered to run in 1997 when Catterson, a Republican, was prosecuting Babylon officials for financial improprieties — a case that ended with four acquittals and one misdemeanor conviction.
Schaffer said he passed on Spota’s offer, but that by 2001 he was eager to help Spota unseat Catterson. With police union support, Spota became a Democrat and campaigned against Catterson — often with Burke, now a police lieutenant, by his side — and won office in November.
“He was full of energy,” Schaffer said, noting that Spota he was “looking to begin his third career.”
Schaffer said he will forever feel affection for Spota, despite the indictment. “I love him, and I always will,” he said.
Schaffer said he had no role in how Spota ran the office. Proof of that, he said, was that Spota insisted on retaining one of the prosecutors who worked for Catterson on the Babylon case: Christopher McPartland. McPartland later became chief of Spota’s public corruption unit.
Schaffer said he never asked Spota why he wanted to keep McPartland. “It wasn’t my business,” he said.Spota quickly won a name for himself by taking on political corruption, winning convictions against members of both political parties.
Spota brought bribery charges against Fred Towle, a Republican county legislator from Shirley who was sentenced to 6 months in jail, and Steve Baranello, a Democratic campaign aide and the son of former Suffolk Democratic chairman Dominic Baranello. He received a community service sentence.
Spota also prosecuted Islip Supervisor Pete McGowan, who pleaded guilty in 2006 to bribe taking, laundering $52,000 in kickbacks, and witness tampering. He served three months in county jail and later did community service.
Spota’s investigation into political fundraising by former Suffolk County Executive Steve Levy, a Democrat turned Republican, resulted in Levy’s agreement in 2011 not to seek re-election and to turn over his $4.1 million war chest to Spota, who distributed it to Levy’s donors.
Neither Spota nor Levy has discussed the details of the still-secret deal. Spota never specified what Levy may have done wrong or why he wasn’t prosecuted.
Spota, a churchgoing Roman Catholic, also led a major investigation in 2003 that revealed sex abuse and cover-ups of it by 58 priests in the Diocese of Rockville Centre. None of the priests could be indicted because their actions had taken place beyond the 5-year statute of limitations. Spota found the diocese had kept a special “uninsured perils fund” to pay sexual assault victims for their silence.
After David Laffer shot four people in 2011 in a Medford pharmacy while robbing it of pain pills, Spota prosecuted doctors who illegally prescribed opioid painkillers. Even as his office was consumed by the Burke scandal last year, it produced a major investigation of flaws in the foster care system in the metropolitan area.
“He didn’t hide under a rock when it came to these problems,” defense attorney Anthony La Pinta said. “That’s sound prosecutorial leadership.”
Numerous defense attorneys said Spota’s loyalty to county police did not prevent him from being accessible to lawyers. He was often willing to consider factors that might drive a person to commit a crime, such as addiction or family circumstances.
No one saw that more than La Pinta, whose mother had been convicted of murder for killing his father when he was a teenager.
In 2005, La Pinta convinced Spota that the 1983 murder conviction was unjust because it didn’t take into account his father’s abuse of his mother. Spota agreed a court should reduce her conviction to manslaughter, allowing her to go free.
La Pinta said Spota told him, “ ‘You should be proud of what you’ve done. I don’t believe your mother was treated fairly, and I want to fix that.’ ”
Once she was free, La Pinta said Spota returned to being “my worthy adversary.”
Many who knew that side of Spota — the tough but compassionate prosecutor — said they found the fact that he spent the last few years of his career under federal investigation hard to comprehend.
“You have to think about his first three terms, when he was on his way to becoming one of the best DAs in modern history,” said Christopher Brocato, a former prosecutor for Spota and now the president of the Suffolk County Criminal Bar Association. “His fourth term destroyed that.”
Defense attorney Steven Politi said, “I think when he began, he really wanted to do the right thing. But the more you seek re-election, politics creeps in over the years.”
More than anything, it was Spota’s relationship with Burke that ultimately undermined him.
Despite Burke having had a relationship with a prostitute and twice losing his gun to her, Spota vouched for him as he rose through the ranks. Spota made Burke chief of his detective investigators and then urged Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone to appoint him chief of all uniformed cops — even after Bellone had received a letter from officers in the department warning him of Burke’s flaws.
Burke is serving a 46-month federal sentence for violating in 2012 the civil rights of Christopher Loeb after pleading guilty to assaulting him, and then engaging in obstruction of justice by orchestrating a cover-up of the attack.
“James Burke has really single-handedly stopped the wheels of justice in Suffolk County,” La Pinta said. “Spota was a nurturing, caring personality and Burke was a young witness in an instrumental case. I don’t think he [Spota] would tolerate criminality or corruption in any relationship. I don’t know him to be that kind of guy.”
Even before Burke’s downfall, there was criticism of Spota’s record.
In 2009, a state appellate court barred Spota from prosecuting immigration attorney Felix Vinluan and 10 nurses who resigned on the same day in April 2006 from Avalon Gardens Rehabilitation & Health Care Center in Smithtown. Spota had charged them after meeting privately with officials from the center’s owner, SentosaCare, a frequent contributor to Democratic politicians.
Spota also drew heat for the aborted grand jury investigation into the 2011 shooting of cabdriver Thomas Moroughan by drunken, off-duty Nassau officers. The officers were not charged criminally, even though a Nassau Police Department internal affairs report said they committed felonies. Moroughan and the internal affairs report said an incriminating statement written by Suffolk detectives did not reflect what happened, and critics said Spota’s office failed to investigate the veracity of the statement seriously.
And in the last few years, his office has been criticized for cases in which prosecutors improperly withheld evidence from defendants.
Spota and McPartland each faces four counts: conspiracy to tamper with witnesses and obstruct an official proceeding; witness tampering and obstruction of an official proceeding; obstruction of justice; and accessory after the fact to the deprivation of civil rights, according to the indictment.
La Pinta said he expected Spota to fight the charges.
“He ain’t going to sit down and cower,” he said. “That’s not who he is . . . ”
Others view him less charitably.
“All the things they accused Catterson of, he became that guy,” said defense attorney Dan Russo, who worked briefly for Spota as an assistant district attorney.
“This fourth term was really detrimental to his legacy,” Brocato said. “He’s a decent man, but it all went south.”
“I still think he’s a good person,” he said. “I feel bad, what happened to him. It’s a shame that this is what he’s going to be remembered for, his last year.”
Wilutis and others said the Burke scandal and the investigation took a toll on Spota.
“He was very despondent, the last year or two,” Wilutis said.
He said Spota once told him, “This is what I’m going to be remembered for.”
- The career of former Suffolk District Attorney Thomas Spota:
- 1971: Becomes a Suffolk assistant district attorney.
- 1975: Assists in the prosecution of “Amityville Horror” defendant Ronald DeFeo Jr., who was convicted of killing six members of his family.
- 1981: Prosecutes the first two of the four defendants charged with killing 13-year-old John Pius. During the case, Spota meets 14-year-old witness James Burke, who went on to become Spota’s chief investigator, and then the Suffolk County Police chief of department in 2012.
- 1982: Goes to work in private law practice; often represents the unions for Suffolk patrol officers and detectives.
- 2001: Switches from Republican to Democrat and defeats GOP District Attorney James Catterson Jr.
- 2003: Releases grand jury report on sexual abuse dating back decades by 58 priests in the Diocese of Rockville Centre.
- 2006: Wins conviction of Islip Town Supervisor Peter McGowan, a Republican, on corruption charges stemming from illegal use of his $1.2 million campaign fund.
- 2011: Brokers deal with Suffolk County Executive Steve Levy, who agrees not to seek a third term and turns over his $4 million campaign war chest to Spota’s office. Spota closes a criminal investigation into Levy’s fundraising.
- 2014: Secures guilty plea from Suffolk information technology commissioner Donald Rodgers, an appointee of Democratic Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone, for failing to disclose business interests on his county financial disclosure form and his work on a multimillion-dollar county software deal. Begins investigating then-Babylon Democratic chairman Robert Stricoff for claimed misuse of campaign money.
- 2015: Burke, the top uniformed officer in the Suffolk Police Department, charged by federal prosecutors with beating a man who had broken into his SUV and then orchestrating a departmentwide cover-up of the assault. Burke is convicted and sentenced to 46 months in federal prison.
- 2016: Newsday reports that federal prosecutors have opened a criminal investigation into the actions of Spota’s office, including the handling of the Levy and Burke cases, the probes of Stricoff and Rodgers and a 2011 shooting of an unarmed cabdriver in Huntington Station by an off-duty Nassau County police officer who was never charged. Spota denies wrongdoing.
- May 12, 2017: Announces he will not seek a fifth term as Suffolk district attorney.
- Oct. 25: He and Christopher McPartland, one of Spota’s chief aides, are indicted on federal charges in a cover-up of Burke’s assault on the suspect. They plead not guilty.
- Nov. 10: Resigns from office.