Just 68 days before he was to close the door on four tumultuous terms as Suffolk County district attorney, Thomas Spota was accused of one of the most dangerous crimes in our democracy, abusing the power of law enforcement.
Spota and top aide Christopher McPartland were indicted on a charge of a stunning display of prosecutorial arrogance: obstructing a federal investigation into whether then-Suffolk County Police Chief of Department James Burke assaulted a criminal suspect and tried to orchestrate a cover-up.
Acting U.S. Attorney Bridget Rohde said on Wednesday that Spota and McPartland — who laughably headed the district attorney’s government corruption bureau — operated with “utter contempt” of the law and in a manner “more akin to a criminal enterprise than a district attorney’s office.”
Spota’s official downfall is no surprise. In recent years, Newsday reporting has doggedly detailed that this “criminal enterprise” was used to protect Spota’s political allies and punish his opponents.
It all unraveled because Spota tried to protect Burke, whom he has mentored for decades. Burke, Spota’s lead investigator for more than a decade, was Suffolk’s police chief when he beat up burglary suspect Christoper Loeb in 2012. The heroin addict was in handcuffs for stealing a gym bag from Burke’s SUV. During the assault, the chief even threatened to kill Loeb with a fatal dose of heroin.
This disgusting episode was witnessed by other county police officers. When Loeb complained about his treatment, arguing in court that his confession was involuntary, Burke began plotting his cover-up, threatening other cops not to tell a special prosecutor what they had seen.
When the U.S. attorney for the Eastern District began an investigation into allegations that Burke coerced his subordinate officers into lying about what happened, Spota and McPartland spun into action to protect Burke. Federal prosecutors on Wednesday described those deeds as witness tampering and interfering with the federal civil rights investigation of Burke, now serving 46 months in prison.
It wasn’t meant to turn out this way. Spota once wore the white hat.
In his 2001 campaign to oust James Catterson, Spota, a Democrat, said the Republican district attorney ran a corrupt office, that the prosecutions were partisan and that the incumbent’s friends were protected.
In his early years, Spota built a reputation as a crusader. He successfully prosecuted 16 officials in the Town of Brookhaven for corruption, and Town of Islip Supervisor Peter McGowan resigned after pleading guilty to misusing campaign funds. Spota cleaned up shoddy finances in the William Floyd School District and put many others on notice to do the same.
In 2003, he stepped into the national spotlight for an extensive grand jury investigation that concluded the Diocese of Rockville Centre protected pedophile priests and silenced their victims. Only this month did the diocese set up a victims compensation fund.
“A prosecutor should be aggressive and use every tool in his arsenal,” Spota said in 2005. “But we have to use it fairly.”
His fall from grace may have stemmed from his arrogance. When you are so convinced that you are right, you can get blinded by the glare of all that righteousness. And Spota could never see how the destructive Burke corrupted his office.
In 2011, cabdriver Thomas Moroughan was shot by an off-duty Nassau County cop in Huntington Station after a night of drinking. Burke was called.
Not only did Suffolk police create a false confession from Moroughan at the hospital, they never conducted a sobriety check on the officer. Spota convened a grand jury and then never presented witnesses, not even bothering to subpoena a report by the Nassau police internal affairs unit which found that the rampaging cop, Anthony DiLeonardo, had committed 11 unlawful acts.
Spota also protected his friends. Suffolk County Sheriff Vincent DeMarco faulted Spota for failing to prosecute Edward Walsh, at the time the head of the Suffolk County Conservative Party, for submitting $200,000 in bogus time sheets because the then-corrections department official was a political ally of Spota. Walsh later was convicted by federal prosecutors of cheating and lying about it, and is serving two years in prison. At Walsh’s trial, DeMarco testified that his attempts to investigate the correction officer’s misuse of his job to conduct party politics, play golf or visit casinos “were thwarted at every turn by Spota and others.”
Spota faulted DeMarco for not providing him with proper evidence against Walsh. But records introduced at trial show there were 15 calls between Spota and Walsh during the time DeMarco was trying to get Spota to make a case.
In another episode, detectives from the district attorney’s team testified before a federal grand jury in Central Islip about a wiretap and what they felt was a failure by Spota to investigate bribes, fraud and drug activity of politically connected defense attorney Robert Macedonio. Burke, before he became police chief, and McPartland oversaw the prosecutor’s office’s handling of that investigation in which the defense lawyer was charged only with cocaine possession. McPartland then supported vacating the conviction that led to the restoration of Macedonio’s license to practice law.
Another top Spota deputy, John Scott Prudenti, has collected thousands in fees from Macedonio and other defense attorneys to rent his boat for parties. Spota never saw that as a conflict of interest.
While federal prosecutors reportedly looked into these other incidents, no charges have been filed.
There also has been a lack of transparency in Spota’s dealings. In a 2011 deal with Spota, then-Suffolk Executive Steve Levy agreed not to seek a third term and turned over $4 million in campaign funds. No criminal charges were ever filed. Perhaps now, with Spota’s power gone, Levy will explain how Spota convinced him to stand down.
Spota played fast and loose with the rules for too long. That is what happens when a district attorney runs for his second, third and fourth terms with cross endorsements from political parties. Elections are ways for the public to hold officials accountable, but Suffolk voters were denied that chance with Spota.
Spota should resign by Thursday morning. His successor, who will be chosen by voters on Nov. 7, should clean out the prosecutorial stable and hold accountable everyone else who allowed these abuses of power to take place.