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Star witness against Spota admits he lied in court in past, cheated on wife

Ex-Suffolk County District Attorney Thomas Spota, left, and

Ex-Suffolk County District Attorney Thomas Spota, left, and former top aide, Christopher McPartland arrive at U.S. District Court in Central Islip on Tuesday morning. Credit: John Roca

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

The attorney for former Suffolk District Attorney Thomas Spota attacked his client's key accuser Tuesday, questioning if he embellished testimony linking Spota to a prisoner beating cover-up while portraying the star government witness as a dishonest cop who lied in court and cheated on his wife.

Attorney Alan Vinegrad launched his animated cross-examination of James Hickey as the ex-police lieutenant testified for a third day in U.S. District Court in the obstruction trial of Spota and Christopher McPartland, Spota's former anti-corruption unit chief.

The Manhattan lawyer quizzed Hickey about his court testimony from decades ago that led to a blemish on his police record, a series of extramarital infidelities, and why notes he created for his defense team didn’t include some damning statements he made while testifying against Spota.

Vinegrad, who raised his voice, waved his arms and paced up and down, kicked off questioning by asking Hickey about details of the 1990 burglary case that a Suffolk judge dismissed after finding Hickey’s testimony at a pretrial hearing wasn’t credible.

Hickey agreed it was unusual for a judge to toss an indictment based on flaws in an officer's testimony. But when the case ended in court, it still wasn't over for Hickey.

"The Internal Affairs bureau found you lied in your testimony in court, correct?" Vinegrad asked.

"Correct," Hickey replied.

Hickey previously testified he lost several vacation days after the false testimony controversy and ensuing internal affairs probe. He said he was 28 and had been a cop for about six years at the time.

Hickey, whose credibility is vital to the prosecution's case, has testified he was part of the cover-up attempt before he became a government cooperator. 

He denied Tuesday that he once told his lawyers he would do whatever it took to avoid criminal charges related to the 2012 prisoner beating at a Suffolk police precinct.

"That is out of context," Hickey told Vinegrad.

"My thought was, anything I could do truthfully and honestly."

Hickey, 55, is the first witness to directly connect Spota to allegations that Spota and McPartland took part in an effort to conceal the beating of a handcuffed prisoner by James Burke, who was then Suffolk's top uniformed cop, and three other detectives.

Burke, Spota's former chief investigator, assaulted burglary suspect Christopher Loeb in the Fourth Precinct on Dec. 14, 2012, hours after the now-recovering heroin addict stole a bag from Burke's police vehicle, according to testimony.

Burke pleaded guilty in early 2016 and served most of a 46-month prison sentence before his release to home confinement last year.

But Spota, 78, of Mount Sinai, and McPartland, 54, of Northport, say they couldn't have been part of trying to conceal Burke's actions because Burke never admitted his guilt to them.

They have pleaded not guilty to charges of conspiracy, obstruction of justice, witness tampering and acting as accessories to the deprivation of Loeb's civil rights.

Hickey turned in his retirement papers in December 2015 after three decades on the police force. He pleaded guilty to conspiracy to obstruct justice on Jan. 15, 2016 and has yet to be sentenced, according to his prior testimony.

The key government witness admitted to Vinegrad on Tuesday that he still was carrying on an affair with a former police force subordinate when he signed a cooperation agreement with prosecutors.

Hickey testified his affair with that particular woman, who worked in the criminal intelligence unit he had commanded, lasted five to six years.

The former lieutenant said he never carried on the affair during working hours, but lied to his wife about the other woman.

The witness also admitted affairs with three other women, including one he carried on with another police force subordinate that also lasted, on and off, for several years.

"Is it fair to say you lied to your wife a lot over many years?" Vinegrad asked.

"Yes," Hickey said.

The witness admitted he only told prosecutors about the one affair that was going on when he became a cooperator, and disclosed the others later.

Vinegrad tried to create distance between Hickey's damaging testimony and his client by pointing out that the witness only spoke to Spota by phone four times from 2008 to 2015 — each call no longer than a minute.

Hickey also acknowledged that the only meeting with Spota he memorialized in calendar entries was a meeting in Spota's office on June 4, 2015.

The witness testified previously that Spota demanded then to know who “flipped” and exposed the cover-up scheme after federal officials reopened their investigation into Loeb's beating.

Vinegrad also pressed Hickey on Tuesday about his claim that Spota knew Burke had assaulted Loeb.

The defense attorney asked how many times it was mentioned in Spota’s presence that Burke had assaulted the prisoner.

“Aside from the 4th?” Hickey replied, a reference to the June 2015 meeting.

“Anytime, ever,” Vinegrad answered.

“That’s the one that stands out to me,” the witness said.

Spota's attorney also asked Hickey why he failed to mention in pages of notes — which the witness originally crafted for his defense attorneys — some of the comments he later testified Spota had made at the June 2015 meeting.

Hickey agreed he didn't include Spota's alleged comment that one of the detectives involved in the beating would never work in Suffolk again if he cooperated with federal officials.

Hickey called the notes an "outline."

The witness later told prosecutor Lara Treinis Gatz, who redirected questions to him Tuesday, that he didn't write down "everything Tom Spota said during three years."

But he said he put in the most significant items, including that Spota and McPartland were “openly discussing and trying to help the police chief.”

The government pointed out that the hastily-made notes Hickey made in November, 2015, when he first decided to cooperate, were later set down in far greater detail in meetings with his lawyers.

On cross-examination, the witness admitted Burke never explicitly told him not to testify against Spota and McPartland.

Hickey previously testified about a fall 2015 rendezvous with Burke in a Ground Round parking lot when he said Burke alluded to going to prison himself and told him he needed "to be strong."

Hickey said he had just gotten a federal subpoena and feared Burke would kill him as the cover-up unraveled. He also said he took Burke's words to mean that he shouldn't cooperate in a case against Spota and McPartland.

"He needed me to be strong," Hickey told Vinegrad. "I took that as intended."

The witness' cross-examination by Spota's attorney came after questioning by McPartland's lawyer, Larry Krantz, that began Monday.

Krantz initially took aim at Hickey's character, with questions focused on alcoholism, which landed Hickey in the hospital in 2013, and mental problems, which led to another hospitalization in late 2015.

The witness connected both to the pressure he faced trying to ensure his detectives' silence during what he called a three-year effort focused on "keeping Jimmy out of jail."

On Tuesday, Hickey told Krantz he hadn't testified to anything he hadn't divulged previously to the U.S. attorney's office.

Prosecutors must hand over notes documenting meetings with witnesses to the defense before a trial.

But Krantz's questioning suggested there was no mention of key parts of Hickey's testimony in notes that government officials made of 17 of their interactions with Hickey by mid-November.

"Everything I testified to in this courtroom I already told the government," Hickey countered.

The witness said that information included his contention that he heard McPartland coach Burke on cover stories to explain Burke's presence at the precinct on the day Burke beat up Loeb.

Krantz also suggested the notes didn't disclose Hickey's claim that Burke admitted in front of McPartland that he had beaten up Loeb.

"I've never seen the government's notes," Hickey told Krantz.

On Tuesday, as Krantz ended his cross-exam of Hickey, the former lieutenant agreed that he didn't want to spend time behind bars.

"Is it fair to say you are hoping as a result of your cooperation in this case you won't have to go to jail?" Krantz asked.

"True," Hickey answered.

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