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Suffolk Democratic leader takes the stand

Richard Schaffer in January.

Richard Schaffer in January. Credit: Shelby Knowles

Fathers and sons

First up Monday was Richard Schaffer, Babylon Town supervisor and longtime chairman of Suffolk's Democratic Party, who nodded toward Thomas Spota, Suffolk's former district attorney, as he walked toward the witness stand.

Spota did not appear to nod back.

Under questioning from Assistant U.S. Attorney Lara Treinis Gatz, Schaffer was asked how he would describe the relationship between Spota and James Burke, former Suffolk police chief of department.

"They were very friendly," Schaffer answered, "like a father and a son."

Several minutes later, Schaffer would use the same phrase to describe his own relationship with Spota, which hit a rough spot when Schaffer backed then-Nassau District Attorney Kathleen Rice's run for New York State attorney general.

"He did not think she would be a good candidate," Schaffer said of Spota's view of Rice, who is now a U.S. congresswoman.

"He was against it … he was angry at me for the decision I made."

"Did he stop talking to you?" Gatz asked.

"It was like we had a father-and-son relationship," Schaffer explained, "so, yes, he stopped speaking to me."

At that, from his seat at the defense table, Spota smiled.

Later, under redirect, Gatz asked again about Spota's negative view of Rice.

"Do you know why?" Gatz asked.

"No," Schaffer answered.

Self-promotion

Burke went to Schaffer in his quest to become chief of department, the highest-ranking uniformed position in Suffolk's police department.

"He wanted to be chief of department, and he asked me to introduce him to Steve Bellone," Schaffer testified.

“ … I gave Steve a call and introduced them."

That was in December 2011, shortly after Bellone was elected Suffolk County executive.

Burke also had another request for Schaffer, the Democratic leader testified.

"He asked that I not tell Spota," he said.

Reference letter

Among the (many) items entered into evidence by prosecutors was a letter, written on Suffolk District Attorney's Office stationery and signed by Spota, wherein Spota addressed allegations about Burke that were contained in an anonymous letter sent to Schaffer and others as Bellone was considering him for chief of department.

"The letter is replete with false allegations …," Spota wrote.

Burke, the letter went on, "has outstanding leadership abilities, which he has displayed over the past four years" as head of the district attorney's investigative unit.

"I have never once regretted my decision," Spota wrote.

"He is highly regarded in the law enforcement community by his subordinates and peers alike."

Gesundheit

Acoustics in Courtroom 920 at U.S. District Court in Central Islip are not great.

There often have been times when Judge Joan Azrack has had to ask both witnesses and lawyers to pull microphones closer so they could be heard.

Early Monday, someone in the courtroom sneezed.

To which more than one person, including a prosecutor, offered some variation of "Bless you."

Alan Vinegrad, Spota's lead defense attorney, who had been questioning a witness, paused at the sound — which he appeared to think was an objection.

But it wasn't.

"I was just saying ‘Bless you,’ ” Assistant U.S. Attorney Nicole Boeckmann said as laughter broke out.

Which came first

In questioning Schaffer about a search committee formed by Bellone to select his administration's police commissioner, Gatz asked about the committee's work.

"Did the committee have the commissioner first or James Burke first?" she asked.

"I don't recall," Schaffer answered.

Bellone, in fact, first appointed Burke — who would report to a commissioner not yet selected.

Gatz later asked Schaffer about the police commissioner appointed after Burke.

Schaffer said he was having a "senior moment."

"Does Richard Webber ring a bell?" Gatz asked.

"I got it wrong," she quickly added, "Edward Webber."

Which was correct.

Richard Webber, by the by, is the name of a character in "Grey's Anatomy," the popular long running medical TV series.

Power politics

Under direct questioning, Schaffer said that the office of district attorney was a powerful one.

Vinegrad, on cross examination, wanted to add more people to the power list, including Schaffer himself.

As a political leader, he said, "you are a powerful force."

"Only in my own mind," Schaffer answered.

But Schaffer conceded, saying, "I guess so," after Vinegrad pressed the issue again.

"I'll stop embarrassing you," Vinegrad said, "I'll move on to something else."

Going to the source

In opening statements, prosecutors had referenced a police officer leaking information to a then-Newsday reporter — without mentioning her by name.

On Monday, prosecution witness Vincent Posillico, a former Suffolk police official, testified that he gave Newsday copies of Suffolk police internal affairs investigations into Burke.

"Did you give it to the reporter?" Gatz asked.

"Yes," Posillico replied.

"And what was her name?" she went on.

"Tania Lopez," came the reply.

"And did you agree to be interviewed by this reporter?"

"Yes."

"Where …"

"At my residence," replied Posillico, who had retired from the department years before speaking to Lopez.

He said Lopez had been directed to him by others he knew.

John Oliva, a former Suffolk police detective who was forced to retire after Spota charged him with a misdemeanor for leaking information to Newsday, was on hand to hear Posillico's testimony.

"They tried to pin that on me, too," he said in a brief hallway interview, adding that he intended to attend as many days of the trial as possible.

Vinegrad, in cross-examining Posillico, asked him about department policy, which required him to return department-related paperwork before retiring.

"Which you should have done, right?" Vinegrad asked.

"Right," Posillico replied.

Courtroom spectators

While Spota and McPartland have supporters on hand during the trial, they have critics, too.

One in the courtroom Monday was Mona Kanciper, who came back to Long Island from Colorado to sit in on the proceedings.

Kanciper's Manorville horse farm was raided in 2010, but all charges against her ultimately were dropped.

"When you are fighting for yourself, it is a horrible thing, a horrible feeling," she said in an interview. "I am here hoping that justice is done."

She looked toward the defense table, where Spota was standing and talking to supporters during a break.

What was she thinking?

"For him, it is a very different thing to be on the other side of the fence," she said.

Giving thanks

Christopher Loeb, who had stolen a duffel bag from Burke's county-issued SUV, fled from the back door of his parent's home in December 2012, as a Suffolk probation official was talking to his mother at the front.

With that, Daniel Buckley gave chase, he testified under prosecution questioning Monday.

After a chase, uphill, in a wooded area in Smithtown, Buckley said, "I found him, lying in a prone position."

"He said he was laying down, resting," Buckley testified.

Probation officials, joined by Suffolk police officers — and later by Suffolk detectives and, still later, by Burke himself — searched Loeb's home.

Buckley said he found Burke's gun belt in a barrel in the basement.

He said he did not see any of the other items that Suffolk police said Loeb had stolen from Burke's county-issued vehicle. Prosecutors have said that Burke, at some point that day, removed his belongings from the house.

"Did you talk to Chief Burke?" Assistant U.S. Attorney Michael Maffei asked.

"Briefly," Buckley replied.

"He just came up to me and said thanks," Buckley testified.

“ ‘Thanks a lot, man.’ ”

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