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Suffolk DA, feds met about wiretap as probe of former chief restarts

Suffolk County District Attorney Thomas Spota had met

Suffolk County District Attorney Thomas Spota had met with the Eastern District U.S. attorney in 2014 to play wiretaps on a Suffolk detective who he said was leaking information about county police investigations, sources said. Credit: Newsday / John Paraskevas

Suffolk County District Attorney Thomas Spota asked to meet with then-U.S. Attorney Loretta Lynch in the summer of 2014, saying he wanted to alert her that a Suffolk detective — whom the government hoped to use as a witness in upcoming federal gang trials — was leaking information about county police investigations, according to sources.

Sitting in Lynch’s Eastern District offices in Brooklyn, Spota and an aide played recordings from a wiretap that his office had placed on then-Suffolk Det. John Oliva, the sources said. The district attorney later mentioned those tapes also picked up conversations between Oliva and federal agents about ongoing federal cases, the sources said.

Oliva and another Suffolk detective once were members of a joint federal-local anti-gang task force but had been removed in August 2012 by then-Suffolk Police Chief of Department James Burke, as part of what Suffolk officials said was an effort to concentrate gang expertise and resources at the precinct level.

But in June 2013, Burke switched gears and chose two new Suffolk officers to serve on the task force a week after the killings of three men within 48 hours in a Central Islip neighborhood. Two of those slayings, other sources said, were believed to have been gang-related.

The assignment of those two officers came up again in early December when Burke, who resigned as chief last October, was indicted by a federal grand jury on charges that he beat a prisoner and then tried to cover up the assault.

In a letter requesting that Burke be denied bail, federal prosecutors alleged that Burke in July 2014 ordered the two officers to report back to him on whom they saw meeting with federal agents or prosecutors at FBI offices in Melville or at the federal courthouse in Central Islip.

The meeting between Spota and Lynch came at a pivotal time in the often strained relationship between Suffolk law enforcement and federal investigators and was emblematic of the complicated agendas of the two agencies at that time.

The federal government was in the midst of looking for a second time into the conduct of Burke, the former head of Spota’s detective squad and the man whom Spota helped lift up to chief of department, the highest ranking uniformed position.

Burke had been a longtime protégé of Spota’s going back to 1979, when he was a Smithtown teenager testifying as a prosecution witness for the then young prosecutor in the notorious murder of John Pius. Pius, 13, was killed by suffocation by having rocks stuffed down his throat.

All four of the defendants in that case initially were convicted of murder, but all convictions were overturned on appeal. Eventually three were retried and found guilty of some role in the incident.

A federal grand jury in 2013 had investigated Burke in the alleged beating of the prisoner and took no action. But in 2014, a second grand jury probe into Burke was activated — one that resulted in an indictment weeks after he resigned.

Burke is charged with beating a Smithtown man, Christopher Loeb, later convicted of stealing a duffel bag from Burke’s department SUV parked in front of Burke’s St. James home. The former chief is also charged with trying to cover it up and asking other officers involved to lie to federal investigators.

Burke has pleaded not guilty to all the charges.

The wiretap Spota had put on Oliva also had picked up conversations about Suffolk police investigations — including a string of armed robberies being probed by Suffolk police — with a Newsday reporter, the sources said.

Oliva did ultimately plead guilty to a misdemeanor charge of official misconduct and retired from the force.

Federal officials, in the meeting in Brooklyn, said it was more appropriate for the district attorney to prosecute local police, the sources said.

But some time after the meeting, federal prosecutors got a federal judge to issue a subpoena obtaining all records from Spota’s office involving Oliva’s wiretapping, the sources said. Since Oliva was a possible witness at several upcoming federal trials of gang members, there was concern that he might have compromised himself by inappropriately discussing those cases, the sources said.

In the end, those defendants pleaded guilty or there was no need for Oliva to testify, the sources said. Moreover, there was no indication that any conversations with federal officials were inappropriate.

A spokesman for Spota did not return repeated requests for comment.

Nellin McIntosh, a spokeswoman for the United States attorney’s office for the Eastern District, declined to comment on the wiretap situation, as did Burke’s attorney, Joseph Conway of Mineola, and Oliva’s attorney, Stephen Scaring of Garden City.

Critics of Burke allege the district attorney’s case against Oliva had more to do with targeting an officer perceived as being disloyal to Burke at a time when the government was investigating Burke.

Oliva was removed by Burke in August 2012. Sources said that Burke made the move because he considered Oliva disloyal to him and also did not want to share credit with the federal government.

Burke and Spota had long argued with federal officials about how joint task forces resulted in the federal government getting the lion’s share of the credit for major cases in Suffolk County, the sources said, even though federal officials had repeatedly assured them that was not the case.

Among cases singled out for such friction was the investigation into the 2010 gang-related murder in Central Islip of 19-year-old Vanessa Argueta and her 2-year-old son, Diego Torres, the sources said.

In November 2012, Suffolk also pulled two detectives from working with the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives. A detective who had been working with the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement was transferred back to Suffolk. Police officials said at the time that those detectives were needed locally.

Federal investigators alleged last month that Burke told the two detectives that he replaced on the gang task force to report back to him about who was talking to authorities about his case.

“SCPD officers assigned to a joint state-federal task force on Long Island were ordered by Burke to report back to him in the event they observed certain witnesses meeting with federal agents or prosecutors at the FBI offices or the United States Courthouse in Central Islip,” Eastern District federal prosecutors James Miskiewicz and Lara Treinis Gatz wrote in the letter that resulted in a federal judge’s decision to jail Burke, pending trial, saying that he was a danger to the community.

Oliva has denied that he had leaked information about the criminal investigation into a string of armed robberies, saying that the reporter had all the information when he was contacted, according to sources familiar with his case.

He did acknowledge that he had accessed departmental computers to pass on the numbers of case files to Newsday, the sources said. The case files, Oliva believed, showed the department downplayed a rise in shootings in the Wyandanch, Central Islip, Brentwood areas, after the gang task force had been weakened by the detectives’ removal, according to sources.

Oliva was charged with fourth-degree grand larceny, computer trespass and official misconduct. In September 2014, he pleaded guilty to a single misdemeanor and received a conditional discharge.

Retired Det. Sgt. Robert Doyle, the former head of the Major Crime squad and the person who recommended Oliva for inclusion on the task force, said in a recent interview that if the department already knew Oliva had accessed its computers that would have been sufficient to charge him with a crime. In that case, he said, there was no reason to install the wiretap and keep it running for weeks, unless it was to monitor whether Oliva was informing on Burke, or others in Suffolk law enforcement.

“In 37 years, in every investigative command, I never knew of a wiretap investigation into leaks. This was to expose the people who were talking negatively about him [Burke],” Doyle said.

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