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Spota and McPartland thought they were above the law, federal prosecutor said in opening statement

Former Suffolk County District Attorney Thomas Spota, left,

Former Suffolk County District Attorney Thomas Spota, left, and Christopher McPartland, a former aide, arrive at federal court in Central Islip on Thursday for opening statements in their obstruction of justice and conspiracy trial. Credit: John Roca

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

Former Suffolk County District Attorney Thomas Spota and one of his top aides, Christopher McPartland, abused their power by orchestrating a cover-up to protect a "crooked cop" and "thought they were above the law," a government attorney said Thursday as the federal trial of the ex-prosecutors got underway.

"We are here today because nobody is above the law," Assistant U.S. Attorney Justina Geraci told jurors in her opening statement in U.S. District Court in Central Islip.

Spota and McPartland were "two corrupt lawyers" who violated their positions of trust to keep former Suffolk Police Chief James Burke from going to jail after he beat a then-heroin addict who broke into his department vehicle and stole “embarrassing personal items," the prosecutor added.

But the cover-up fell apart after three years, and police criminal intelligence unit detectives, who also took part in the December 2012 beating of Christopher Loeb inside a police precinct and the cover-up effort, eventually told the truth, Geraci said.

Spota and McPartland, his anti-corruption chief, along with Burke "were literally in charge of law and order in Suffolk County," the prosecutor added.
"Because of that," she said, "they believed that they were untouchable — that they could do whatever they wanted and get away with it."

Geraci said the trial was "about how Burke's closest friends and allies … helped him cover up the assault, instead of doing their jobs, and holding crooked Jimmy Burke accountable for his crimes, as they were sworn to do."

Together, she said, the trio of friends "were the three most powerful men in Suffolk County" for nearly 15 years.

Spota, 78, of Mount Sinai, and McPartland, 53, of Northport, are standing trial on four felony charges and maintain their innocence.

Their defense attorneys later fired back at the prosecution's case Thursday with fervor.

"Tom Spota is innocent," declared Alan Vinegrad, the ex-district attorney's defense lawyer.

The allegations, he also told jurors, are a "baseless and damnable lie."

Larry Krantz, McPartland's attorney, said the government's case is based on "guilt by association," a belief McPartland "must have been in on the crime" because he and Burke were buddies.

The defense attorneys also attacked the credibility of a former Suffolk police lieutenant who will serve as a key prosecution witness, portraying him as an unreliable drunk desperate to avoid time behind bars.

An indictment accuses Spota and McPartland of conspiracy, obstruction of justice, witness tampering and acting as accessories to the deprivation of the civil rights of Christopher Loeb, then 26, after his police beating. 

Loeb stole a duffel bag from Burke’s police vehicle that contained a gun belt, magazines of ammunition, a box of cigars, sex toys and pornography, according to prosecutors.

The indictment also alleges the defendants, Burke and others used intimidation and threats to pressure one or more witnesses, including co-conspirators, not to cooperate with a federal probe into the assault, and to provide false information and withhold information from authorities and the grand jury.

But attorneys for Spota and McPartland insisted Thursday that Burke never admitted to their clients he had assaulted Loeb.

They claim Burke “vociferously denied it” to them — negating the government’s theory that both defendants knew Burke was guilty and tried to help him conceal it.

In November 2016, a judge sentenced Burke to 46 months in prison for beating Loeb and carrying out a scheme to try to cover up his actions.

Burke, who was Spota's longtime protégé and worked as his chief investigator for a decade before becoming police chief, served almost all of his prison sentence before his release last year to home confinement.

Geraci told jurors that when Burke realized his duffel had been stolen from his vehicle on the morning of Dec. 14, 2012, he made one call to McPartland and another to police Lt. James Hickey, then commanding officer of the police force's criminal intelligence unit.

She said Burke wanted help getting his duffel back, and it "was not good news" for him that Suffolk police already had arrested Loeb and a friend of his and recovered the stolen property at Loeb's Smithtown home.

The duffel, or "party bag," also contained Burke's Viagra prescription and he soon "trampled" through the crime scene and seized his property back, Geraci said.

Burke then went to a police precinct and beat up Loeb with three intelligence unit detectives as Loeb was handcuffed and shackled to the floor — slapping, punching and kicking Loeb and also "shaking him by his ears," the prosecutor said.

Then Burke, McPartland and Spota went into "full damage control mode," with McPartland's bureau at the district attorney's office taking control of the "basic theft case" despite specializing in corruption prosecutions, she added.

Spota and McPartland then enlisted Hickey and another high-ranking department official to keep other police force members in line, so no one would report that Burke had beaten Loeb, Geraci said.

Hickey, whose unit Burke considered his "palace guard," was tasked with silencing the involved detectives, the federal prosecutor alleged Thursday.

William Madigan — the chief of detectives before his December 2015 retirement — also was enlisted to make sure Hickey did his job and to monitor the case against Loeb, Geraci said.

But a lawyer for Loeb, "the one person who no one could control," took the beating allegations public, and the FBI and U.S. attorney's office began probing the case for any civil rights violations, the prosecutor told jurors.

Six months later, the issuing of federal subpoenas in June 2013 to the intelligence unit detectives set off a flurry of calls among the defendants and Burke, who rushed back from a fishing trip for a meeting with them at Spota's home — a meeting focused on thwarting the probe, Geraci said.

McPartland was "the architect of the lies," helping Burke craft a story about Loeb being a "junkie thief" who fabricated his tale of an assault — a story, Geraci also said, that became the "script" everyone was supposed to follow.

More meetings followed, in bars, church parking lots and homes, and the federal probe did stall for a while, with one cop committing perjury in an effort to stick to the story about a lying junkie, Geraci said.

But in 2015, the federal investigation was reopened and investigators also began looking into not only Burke's actions but whether there had been a cover-up, the prosecutor told jurors.

Spota, McPartland and Burke grilled Hickey at a meeting that June in Spota's office, certain that one of his detectives had become a "rat" who was cooperating with federal officials, Geraci said.

The detective who perjured himself in state court, one of the police officials involved in Loeb's assault, later pleaded guilty to obstruction charges and will testify during the trial with the hope of a reduced sentence, Geraci said.

The U.S. attorney's Ooffice granted immunity to another detective involved in the assault and compelled his testimony before the grand jury investigating the assault and cover-up — a move that kickstarted the case against Spota and McPartland, the prosecutor said.

Phone records will provide a "road map" for how the conspiracy unfolded, and jurors also will hear that Burke forked over $25,000 to McPartland to help with his legal expenses, Geraci said.

Hickey will testify and explain how cops faced ruined careers and destroyed lives if they didn't lie for Burke, Geraci said.

Hickey, whom the defendants "brought into the conspiracy" and "trusted to keep the cover-up running smoothly" was hospitalized during each of the federal probes — once for drinking heavily and then for stress and sleep deprivation, the prosecutor said.

She said the ex-police lieutenant — who put in retirement papers in December 2015 — is cooperating now because he knows he broke the law by taking part in the conspiracy and hopes to get a lighter sentence when he is sentenced for his crimes.

Lawyers for Spota and McPartland cast aspersions on Hickey's character in their opening statements.

Vinegrad, Spota's attorney, called the government witness someone with a "long past of credibility issues" whose only way out of trouble "was to point the finger at other people" who were "up the food chain."

Krantz, McPartland's lawyer, said while the government's case rests on Hickey, the former lieutenant has serious alcohol and psychological problems.

He added that Hickey is testifying "to save himself" and "is hoping to avoid going to jail."

Krantz also told jurors that Hickey in 2013 had to be hospitalized for several days and was drinking a bottle of wine and half a bottle or more of vodka every day.

Later, in October 2015, Hickey was hospitalized again and "was experiencing days of delusions, hallucinations and paranoia" while also "being violent and seeing people who were not there," McPartland's lawyer added.

Hickey also is the only government witness who had direct conversations with McPartland, Krantz said, adding that the witness' recall won't be buttressed by any tape recordings, videos or text messages.

Prosecutors didn't get Hickey's medical records until this year, when their case already was built on "a corroded foundation," Krantz added.

McPartland's lawyer also said in his client's defense that Burke lied to McPartland about what happened with Loeb, with Burke claiming the federal investigation into Loeb's assault was retaliation after he withdrew Suffolk cops from a gang task force.

Krantz added there was nothing illegal about his client taking a $25,000 loan from Burke to pay legal bills.

Vinegrad said Thursday that the government's case against his client consists of "smearing Tom Spota with all types of baseless and irrelevant mud."

He pointed to Spota's 50-year legal career, calling him a "longtime distinguished public servant" who "stepped aside" and asked for a special prosecutor after learning, about two months after Loeb's arrest, that the burglary suspect was alleging Burke had beaten him.

After a federal probe began, Spota "did nothing to get in the way," Vinegrad added.

He predicted jurors would hear no evidence Spota told anyone to lie or come up with a cover story.

Vinegrad said Spota merely gossiped about the federal investigation, just like everyone else in Suffolk law enforcement.

Spota thought when the first federal probe closed that it was confirmation of what Burke had told him many times: that he hadn't assaulted Loeb.

Spota was surprised, Vinegrad said, when the probe was reopened but didn't obstruct the investigation.

After opening statements, former Suffolk Police Commissioner John Gallagher testified Spota was aware Burke had "a checkered past with internal affairs" within the police department.

At the time, Spota was asking Gallagher to appoint Burke as the commanding officer of the district attorney's investigations squad — which Gallagher then did.

Suffolk Police Chief Stuart Cameron, who began serving in his current role after Burke stepped down, then testified, describing Burke's rise through the department as "more rapid than standard."

Cameron also said Burke and Spota had a close relationship that went back to Burke's participation as a teenage witness in a homicide case that Spota prosecuted.

The police chief also said that after taking his current command, he transferred Hickey — who called out sick a lot and seemed stressed — out of the intelligence unit.

But Hickey didn't appear to be intoxicated, hallucinating or suffering from paranoia, Cameron said.

The trial resumes Monday.

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