Suffolk County has agreed to pay $1.5 million to a former Suffolk police detective whose conviction for leaking information to a Newsday reporter was overturned last year, officials said Thursday.
John Oliva, a 20-year police department veteran, was forced to resign after pressure from disgraced ex-Suffolk County District Attorney Thomas Spota and his top aide, Christopher McPartland, to plead guilty to a crime in connection with the case.
“I’m just glad it’s done,” Oliva said Thursday in a phone interview with Newsday. “It’s over 8 years ago. I’m glad that they officially righted a wrong.”
County Executive Steve Bellone, whose administration brokered the settlement, said in a statement: “Detective John Oliva was just one of many individuals corruptly targeted by former District Attorney Tom Spota, who is now serving a federal prison sentence. This settlement is yet another example of the cost of that corruption.”
The settlement will be paid from the county's reserve fund, said Bellone spokeswoman Marykate Guilfoyle.
Oliva’s attorney Bruce Barket said the county “did the right thing here and the smart thing” in settling before litigation began.
“The guy was vilified,” Barket said of the former detective. “He was forced to retire early. He was convicted of a crime that he did not commit, all in order to teach him and others a lesson that you can’t cross ‘the administration.’ ”
Spota, McPartland and ex-Suffolk Police Chief James Burke had dubbed themselves “the administration,” and according to testimony at Spota and McPartland’s 2019 federal corruption trial, they labeled Oliva an “enemy” and wiretapped his phone for months because Burke didn’t like that Oliva was working on a federal gang task force. Spota’s office prosecuted Oliva for allegedly giving information to a reporter. The judge who later vacated Oliva’s conviction called their actions a “vindictive conspiracy.”
Spota and McPartland are each serving 5-year sentences in federal prison after their convictions for orchestrating a cover-up with Burke after the then-chief beat a handcuffed suspect on Dec. 14, 2012. The suspect, a Smithtown resident at the time, allegedly stole a duffel bag from Burke's police vehicle. Burke pleaded guilty to violating the man's civil rights and orchestrating a departmental cover-up of the crime. He served most of a 46-month federal prison sentence.
The Suffolk Legislature’s Ways and Means Committee approved the payment to Oliva in a unanimous vote Thursday, said its chairman, Legis. Rob Trotta (R-Fort Salonga), who recused himself from the vote because he was Oliva’s partner when they worked together as cops.
“Once again the taxpayers of this county are forced to pay the price for government corruption and the persistent mismanagement of County Executive Bellone,” Trotta said. “It’s a disgrace that the police union stood behind a corrupt police chief and abandoned its own union member.”
Oliva pleaded guilty on Sept. 9, 2014, to a misdemeanor charge of official misconduct and was sentenced to a conditional discharge. Prosecutors said Oliva allegedly provided information to Newsday reporter Tania Lopez about a string of gunpoint robberies. Oliva denied the accusation.
He had only pleaded guilty "through duress" and as a result of "direct threats" by Spota and McPartland, his attorney said previously. Oliva was forced to retire, foregoing his career and negatively impacting his pension benefits. Lopez now works as the communications director for Suffolk County District Attorney Ray Tierney.
Spota and McPartland had obtained a court-sanctioned wiretap on Oliva’s phone through "misrepresentations and fraud upon the court," and used personal information from listening to his conversations over four months to "coerce" his guilty plea, the defense had argued.
Then-Suffolk District Attorney Timothy Sini’s Conviction Integrity Bureau, which said it “substantiated” Oliva’s claims, joined the defense motion to vacate Oliva’s conviction.
During Oliva’s career, Barket said, members of the notorious street gang MS-13 threatened to kill him, and the detective was offered the opportunity to move to a different law enforcement job, but he refused.
“MS-13, with the threat of murder, weren’t able to accomplish what the corrupt forces of Spota, McPartland and Burke did,” Barket said. “Suffolk lost a great detective and Oliva lost his career and reputation. A strong argument could be made that $1.5 million doesn’t come close to cover what happened to him.”