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Unsealed court letter reveals new details about investigation into Spota

The letter contained remarks reportedly made by the late U.S. District Judge Leonard Wexler about a federal investigation involving then-Suffolk Police Chief James Burke and former Suffolk District Attorney Thomas Spota.

Then-Suffolk County District Attorney Thomas Spota leaves federal

Then-Suffolk County District Attorney Thomas Spota leaves federal court in Central Islip in October 2017.  Photo Credit: Newsday/Steve Pfost

A confidential source reportedly told the FBI in 2016 that the federal judge handling former Suffolk Police Chief James Burke’s prisoner assault and cover-up case revealed in a conversation with an unnamed person that the investigation was “shifting” to then-Suffolk District Attorney Thomas Spota who was “finished,” according to a newly-unsealed filing in Burke’s appeal.

The Second U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals two weeks ago rejected Burke’s claim that the remarks by U.S. District Judge Leonard Wexler, who died in April of 2018, should have disqualified him and were grounds to reverse Burke’s guilty plea.

The appeals court also unsealed a Feb. 22, 2016, letter to Wexler in which federal prosecutors revealed to the judge and Burke's lawyer that his comments to an unidentified “John Doe 2” had been passed along and reported to FBI agents by a confidential source in “another matter.” The circumstances of the conversation have not been made public.

According to the letter from prosecutors, the source learned that Wexler had revealed that he “signed subpoenas or other court documents in connection with the Burke case” and that “the focus of the investigation was shifting from Burke to Spota “who was ‘finished' and may have already been indicted.”

Spota's attorney, Alan Vinegrad, did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

The letter — submitted by Assistant U.S. Attorneys Lara Treinis Gatz and John Durham and signed by former Eastern District U.S. Attorney Robert Capers — said Wexler's conversation occurred in December 2015. It was unclear whether it was before or after Burke was arrested and charged on Dec. 9, 2015.

"Because of the nature and content of this letter, we respectfully request that it be filed under seal," the letter said. "As explained above, the government is investigating another matter and the public disclosure of this letter could compromise that matter."

Spota and one of his chief aides, Christopher McPartland, were indicted in October 2017 on federal charges that they were involved in Burke's cover-up.  Spota resigned from his office days after his indictment was announced.

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Spota, a Democrat, the top law enforcement officer in the county for 16 years, was elected as a corruption fighter. McPartland ran Spota's political corruption unit. Spota and McPartland have pleaded not guilty to the charges and are out on bail pending the scheduled start of their trial in early May.

Spota and McPartland each face 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.

Wexler, according to the newly-unsealed letter, had also reportedly said that it was “unclear whether the investigation would impact Suffolk County Executive Steven Bellone” and said it “would not impact” Suffolk Democratic chairman Richard Schaffer.

Reached for reaction both to the letter and also to whether federal investigators questioned the county executive or his officials or if investigators requested any documents as part of the federal investigation, Bellone's spokesman Jason Elan issued a written statement.

“County Executive Bellone fired Jim Burke and publicly called on former District Attorney Spota to resign a year and a half before his federal indictment," the statement said. "The reality is that the culture of corruption the County Executive fought against from Day One is over.”

Prosecutors said in their letter to the judge that they were disclosing the information from the source in an “excess of caution” and had consulted with the Justice Department in Washington, but were not seeking Wexler’s removal. The defense also did not ask him to step down when Burke pleaded guilty and was sentenced to 46 months in prison by Wexler.

The sentence was higher than Burke wanted but lower than prosecutors requested. Burke was released from a federal prison in December after serving most of his sentence and was moved to a half-way house.  He is expected to fully complete his sentence in April but will be on court-supervised status for three years.

In his appeal, Burke said he should have had the option of withdrawing his plea, arguing that Wexler should have disqualified himself on his own because the remarks revealed by the letter might have raised questions about his impartiality.

Prosecutors said Wexler had been careless in talking about a case he was handling, but hadn’t indicated any bias for or against Burke. The Second Circuit agreed, and said Burke waited too long to raise the issue.

Burke was sentenced to 46 months in prison in November 2016 for beating Christopher Loeb, the addict who stole a duffel bag from his police-issued vehicle and orchestrating an elaborate scheme to conceal the crime.

The case started in December 2012, when Loeb, then 26, broke into Burke’s departmental sport utility vehicle and stole the duffel bag, finding a gun-belt, magazines of ammunition, a box of cigars, sex toys and pornography, prosecutors said.

Federal prosecutors said in a pre-sentencing memorandum that Burke’s obstruction scheme included “the recruiting of high-ranking officials from other county agencies to assist him in the obstruction and to give teeth to his threats.”

“SCPD members who witnessed the assault came under direct and extreme pressure from the defendants and others to conceal it,” prosecutors said.

Burke, 54, of St. James, was formerly Suffolk’s highest-ranking uniformed officer, serving as chief of department from January 2012 until his resignation in November 2015.

He was a longtime protégé of Spota, who named him to head the DA's detective unit before he was named chief of the Suffolk Police Department.

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