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Prosecutor says Spota, McPartland were criminals; defense attacks star witness

Suffolk County Legis. Robert Trotta (R-Fort Salonga) on Wednesday spoke to Newsday on his way into court, calling the Spota case an "embarrassment" for Suffolk County. (Credit: John Roca)

This story was reported by Nicole Fuller, Robert E. Kessler and Bridget Murphy. It was written by Murphy.

Suffolk County District Attorney Thomas Spota's determination to keep Police Chief James Burke out of jail after the top uniformed cop assaulted a shackled prisoner led him to abandon his duty to uphold the law and lead a three-year conspiracy bent on protecting his loyal protégé, a prosecutor said Wednesday.

Spota and co-defendant Christopher McPartland, who led Spota's anti-corruption unit, abused their power and the trust Suffolk residents put in them, becoming criminals to protect a member of their inner circle, Assistant U.S. Attorney Lara Treinis Gatz told jurors.

"They were the law so they believed they were untouchable, but they were wrong," she added in a detailed four-hour closing argument at the pair's obstruction trial in U.S. District Court in Central Islip.

Prosecutors say Spota and McPartland orchestrated a cover-up scheme to try to conceal Burke's December 2012 assault on prisoner Christopher Loeb at Suffolk's Fourth Precinct station after Loeb burglarized Burke's police vehicle.

But the former Suffolk prosecutors maintain their innocence and contend they couldn't have been part of a cover-up because Burke never confessed to them before admitting his crimes in court.

McPartland's attorney, Larry Krantz, told jurors later Wednesday in his closing argument that there was "simply no reliable, credible evidence of the charged crimes."

He added: "The government has gotten it wrong."

Krantz also said the prosecution's star witness was "on an island in this case" and motivated to cut a deal to save himself. 

Meanwhile, the accusations have turned McPartland's life "upside down" and "he had to leave the office he loved," the Manhattan defense attorney said.

Spota's attorney will deliver his closing argument to the jury Thursday.

In a February 2016 guilty plea, Burke admitted to beating Loeb and trying to cover it up after Loeb took what prosecutors dubbed Burke's "party bag" from his vehicle.

The Police Athletic League duffel bag had items in it that included his gun belt, ammunition, cigars, sex toys, pornography and Viagra, according to testimony.

Burke served most of a 46-month prison sentence before his release to home confinement last year.

Spota, 78, of Mount Sinai, and McPartland, 54, of Northport, pleaded not guilty to charges of conspiracy, obstruction of justice, witness tampering and acting as accessories to the deprivation of Loeb's civil rights.

Spota, Gatz explained, became "the CEO or president of the conspiracy," enlisting his right-hand man McPartland as the "chief operating officer," while crucial prosecution witness James Hickey took the role of "middle management."

Three of Hickey's detectives from the criminal intelligence unit he commanded became the conspiracy's "worker bees" after taking part in Loeb's assault with Burke — the guys "in the trenches taking their orders from the top," Gatz said.

The orders, she said, were about "keeping their mouths shut" as Hickey bore the weight of the conspiracy on his back.

But Krantz took aim at the government's key witness by presenting jurors with a list of "10 reasons why James Hickey cannot be believed" that included "raw self-interest," along with a "psychotic break from reality" and committing "perjury" in the past.

In her closing, Gatz also tried to demonstrate the strength of the bond between Spota and Burke by rewinding to four decades ago when Burke was the star teenage witness in a murder trial Spota was prosecuting.

Gatz then pointed out how Spota advocated for Burke when he got into trouble as a Suffolk cop in the early 1990s, acting as his lawyer in connection with internal disciplinary charges that ended with the finding that Burke was guilty of conduct unbecoming an officer.

Spota knew, Gatz said, that Burke in 1993 had a sexual relationship with a prostitute who used and sold drugs, and at one point, had possession of Burke's service weapon.

But Burke's "checkered past" didn't stop Spota from defending Burke in 2011 as Burke sought to become chief of department in County Executive-Elect Steve Bellone's administration, Gatz said.

When an anonymous letter tried to discourage Bellone from promoting Burke to the role, warning Burke frequented prostitutes and one had stolen his gun, Spota wrote his own letter in response and Burke got the job, the prosecutor told jurors.

"Tom Spota has a history of protecting and covering up for Jimmy Burke," Gatz said.

After becoming chief, Burke — who had already been Spota's chief investigator for a decade — joined the district attorney and McPartland to become one of "the three most powerful men in Suffolk County," Gatz added.

Anyone who crossed a member of the trio became an enemy of them all and retaliation was "sure to follow," according to the prosecutor.

She said the cover-up of Burke's crimes was an effort "to protect their fiefdom" as a federal investigation into Loeb's police brutality allegations "threatened to destroy all they had worked for and accomplished."

Gatz also tried to demonstrate close ties between Burke and McPartland, calling them "best friends" who would "golf together, drink together, vacation together" and answer each other's calls by using an expletive.

The prosecutor said Burke talked to McPartland six times after beating Loeb on Dec. 12, 2014, alleging Burke told McPartland what he had done because McPartland was in a position to help him cover it up — which she said he did.

Gatz told jurors that phone records show McPartland called Spota that day, alleging that McPartland filled Spota in Loeb's beating, before the group went into "full damage control mode" to protect Burke.

Krantz, however, attacked the government's reliance on phone records, saying records of calls proved "nothing about what was said."

Gatz also alleged Wednesday that the fact that McPartland's specialized unit took on Loeb's larceny case showed McPartland was in on the cover-up from the beginning.

The prosecutor disparaged the testimony of former Spota chief deputy Emily Constant, saying her contention that she forgot to follow an order from Spota to transfer the case out of McPartland's unit before a special prosecutor took over was "fiction."

Gatz said the testimony of Spiros Moustakas, who worked in McPartland's unit and to whom McPartland assigned Loeb's case, showed Spota never ordered the case transferred.

Moustakas recalled seeing Spota as he headed into a grand jury proceeding in Loeb's case and Spota didn't question why Moustakas was still handling the matter, Gatz said.

She also recalled Moustakas' testimony about a February 2013 meeting in Spota's office that included Constant and McPartland. The witness said it occurred after Loeb's lawyer told Moustakas in court that Loeb had been assaulted in police custody.

Loeb's lawyer had given Moustakas legal paperwork that included a written demand for the names of any witnesses to Burke's assault on Loeb, Gatz recalled.

But the prosecutor said the document sparked a reaction from Spota and McPartland that was more like that of "criminal defense attorneys" than prosecutors.

Gatz further recalled Moustakas' testimony that Spota asked if there were video cameras or a sign-in book at the precinct, before McPartland replied that everyone would remember Burke's presence because he was the chief.

Later, there was no mention of any assault allegations in an affidavit that Spota's office crafted, portraying Burke as a victim, while seeking a special prosecutor for Loeb's larceny case, Gatz pointed out.

McPartland's attorney defended Constant, saying Gatz had attacked her because she contradicted Hickey's testimony.

"If you have a choice between believing Emily Constant, a prosecutor for 38 years with an unblemished record, and James Hickey, who you gonna pick?" Krantz said.

But Gatz said Hickey was worthy of belief, saying other evidence supported his account of what was "a perfect view" inside the conspiracy.

Hickey testified that he pleaded guilty in 2016 to taking part in the attempted cover-up of Loeb's assault and is hoping for leniency when he is sentenced after testifying for the prosecution.

The retired police lieutenant was hospitalized in October 2015 after hallucinations brought on by stress and sleep deprivation, after a separate hospitalization in 2013 for pancreatitis after excessive alcohol intake, testimony showed.

Hickey attributed both hospitalizations to the stress of the conspiracy.

The witness said he began drinking while under extreme pressure to keep his detectives quiet, but never consumed alcohol after his 2013 hospital discharge and insisted his memory wasn't compromised by his drinking.

Among his testimony, Hickey offered a damning account of a June 2015 meeting in Spota's office in which he said Spota grilled him on who he believed had "flipped" — or begun cooperating with federal officials — after the civil rights probe in Loeb's case restarted.

But Krantz told jurors Wednesday that the government wanted them to accept Hickey's "uncorroborated" testimony as "gospel," while saying the former lieutenant had falsely accused McPartland and "is a combination of desperate and not well."

The defense attorney acknowledged his client did have a friendship with Burke, whom he called a "complicated person" with "deep flaws."

But Krantz said it wasn't a crime for his client to talk to Burke about the Loeb case or any related federal investigation.

Burke, Krantz said, told McPartland he didn't do anything wrong and claimed federal officials were out to get him.

"Mr. McPartland acted properly, obstructed nothing. ... He was lied to by Burke," the defense attorney added, while imploring jurors to deliver a not-guilty verdict.

"End this nightmare," Krantz said.

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