Suffolk District Attorney Thomas Spota, who came into office as a corruption buster but whose own office reportedly is under federal scrutiny, will not seek re-election this November, ending a record 16 years as the county’s top prosecutor.
Spota disclosed his decision in an email to staff late Friday, as Suffolk Democrats prepared to screen potential district attorney candidates Saturday at party headquarters in Bohemia.
“I have advised the chair of the Democratic committee that I will not be seeking to run for a fifth term and will retire at the end of this year,” Spota said.
Spota, 75, called it “one of the most difficult decisions I’ve ever made.”
He said his, “hesitancy in reaching this decision was in large measure because I’ll be leaving an office of truly wonderful talented and dedicated professionals.”
The “deciding factor though is that life is too short (especially at my age) and it’s time to spend quality time with my wife, children and grandchildren with two more on the way!” he wrote.
Within minutes of Spota’s announcement, Suffolk Police Commissioner Timothy Sini formally announced his candidacy for district attorney, and named David Kelley, a former assistant U.S. attorney in the Southern District, as his campaign chairman. Sini, a Democrat, said he will remain in his police post while running to succeed Spota.
Spota’s impending exit will create the first race for district attorney without an incumbent in 28 years. A battle already is underway, with 15 contenders vying for the $194,243-a-year post, with the power to subpoena, indict and prosecute violent criminals and corrupt politicians.
Republicans and Democrats are keen for party cross endorsements, which could provide an edge in November.
“Tom Spota has been the best district attorney in my lifetime for all the work he has done on environmental crime, gang violence prevailing wage violations and political corruption,” said Richard Schaffer, Suffolk Democratic chairman.
Spota’s decision, Schaffer said, “will allow us to look to the next generation of law enforcement officials.” Schaffer said he does not expect party leaders to pick a candidate Saturday, but they must move soon because the party convention is May 22.
Suffolk Republican chairman John Jay LaValle did not respond to requests for comment. The GOP convention is June 5.
Defense attorney Raymond Perini, who is seeking the Republican nomination for district attorney and who lost a GOP primary to Spota four years ago, said Spota’s announcement allows the transition to a new district attorney to begin.
“Four years ago, I ran a primary because a Democrat got Republican cross-endorsement,” Perini said. “The fact that he is now stepping down will allow the people to pick the best district attorney, which is good for everyone.”
Spota in his career amassed an array of corruption convictions, and received major and minor party endorsements in three of his four campaigns.
His office won conviction of Islip Town Supervisor Peter McGowan for misusing his $1 million campaign fund. And Spota engineered an unusual deal in which former County Executive Steve Levy, a Republican, gave up his $4 million campaign fund but was allowed to finish the final months of his term.
But Democratic County Executive Steve Bellone has attacked Spota’s ties to his one-time protege James Burke, who as Suffolk’s top uniformed cop was convicted on federal charges of beating a burglary suspect and taking part in a cover-up.
Newsday has reported that federal investigators are probing whether Spota and his anti-corruption bureau chief Christopher McPartland took part in a cover-up of the assault on the suspect.
Neither Spota nor McPartland has been charged with any wrongdoing in the cases.
Spota has said he has done nothing improper in all the cases; McPartland and his attorney have declined to comment.
John Marzulli, spokesman for the U.S. attorney in the Eastern District, said the office had no comment about Spota’s plans to retire.
Asked about any possible impact on any federal investigation, Marzulli said: “The office neither confirms nor denies nor comments on whether or not there is an ongoing investigation.”
Spota’s campaign finance reports show he has spent $109,277 to retain the Manhattan defense firm of Covington & Burling.
Suffolk Sheriff Vincent DeMarco, a Conservative who disclosed Monday that he will not seek a third term, said Spota thwarted a probe of ex-Suffolk Conservative chairman Edward Walsh. Walsh was convicted on federal charges of taking $200,000 in pay as a corrections lieutenant while he was golfing, gambling and politicking on county time.
Spota said Bellone’s and DeMarco’s attacks were aimed at diverting attention from their own failings in dealing with Walsh and Burke.
Spota also said Bellone’s efforts were designed to thwart district attorney probes of Bellone aides and Bellone’s boyhood friend Robert Stricoff, a former Babylon Democratic leader and town industrial development agency head.
In an interview after Spota’s announcement, Sini said there was “no doubt” the district attorney’s office “has been compromised.” Sini said he would bring “strong ethical and effective leadership” to the office.
Sini said he will attend the Democrats’ screening Saturday, but declined to say if he would run a primary or seek the endorsement of other political parties. But he said, “I will do whatever it takes to get on the ballot . . . I intend to win.”
Michael Dawidziak, a political consultant who works mainly for Republicans, noted Friday that all sides are starting their countywide campaigns late.
“It’s May 12, four weeks until petitions hit the streets and neither party has any idea who will be topping their ticket in a county bigger than 11 states,” Dawidziak said. “It’s bizarre.”
With Robert E. Kessler