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From the archives: Spota, Catterson rip each other; Clash in the first debate of DA race

This article was originally published in Newsday on October 13, 2001.


Within three minutes of starting to debate Friday, Thomas Spota pounced on Suffolk County District Attorney James M. Catterson Jr., attacking his ability to work with federal officials to combat terrorist threats.

At a meeting Catterson held earlier this year, Spota said, the district attorney "actually threw out the U.S. attorney and the FBI agent who were there to talk about terrorism," Spota said.

"That's utter nonsense," Catterson retorted. "This is just not true. I didn't kick anyone out."

So it went for 30 minutes Friday as Catterson and Spota, his Democratic challenger, clashed in the first debate of the race, with each impugning the other's character, integrity and ability to prosecute criminals.

The debate was held by News 12 Long Island at the station's Woodbury studio. It will air Oct. 26 at 7 p.m. A Conservative Party candidate, Richard Thompson, 42, of West Islip, declined to debate.

Spota, 60, a former homicide prosecutor under former district attorney Patrick Henry, assailed Catterson aggressively, charging that he routinely tries to intimidate his enemies. He cited five aides to Richard Schaffer, the Babylon Supervisor and Suffolk Democratic leader, who were indicted. Only one was convict-ed, on misdemeanor charges that now are on appeal.

"Has he been a political bully? Obviously," Spota said in response to a ques-tion, ticking off political officials he said had run-ins with Catterson. "They tell instance after instance of threats of grand jury [indictments] ... He was out to get Richie Schaffer, he was out to get the Town of Babylon, and that's just improper."

Catterson, 71, a 12-year incumbent Republican, defended his actions, including the prosecution and conviction this year of Sheriff Patrick Mahoney for using his office for political activity, as those of a strong, independent prosecutor.

"I hold public officials to a higher standard," Catterson said. "I hold them ac-countable."

Catterson questioned whether Spota would have the same mettle, given his long-time role as counsel to several police unions. Four of those unions and their umbrella group backed Catterson in previous years but have endorsed Spota.

Catterson also said Spota was implicated in a 1989 State Commission of Investi-gation report examining possible improprieties by Suffolk homicide detectives.

"You can't be cozy with people, socialize with them on the golf course, go out with them ... then expect people to believe you can judge them," Catterson said.

The 1989 report was highly critical of Henry and the Suffolk Police Department, accusing both of illegal wiretapping and permitting perjury in homicide cases.

Spota responded that the cases came four years after he left the district attorney's office. "I never prosecuted any one of them," he said.

Spota also characterized some of Catterson's top prosecutors as "ineffectual," and said the office allowed child molesters to be released on bail pending trial. Catterson said that in one case, the judge was unaware of a law that should have prevented that, and that after his office pointed it out, the suspect was located quickly and jailed.

Staff writer Emi Endo contributed to this story. 

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