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Don't stop with conviction of Spota and McPartland

Thomas Spota leaves federal court in Central Islip

Thomas Spota leaves federal court in Central Islip after he was found guilty on all felony charges Tuesday, Dec. 17, 2019. Credit: Barry Sloan

Throughout their long careers as prosecutors, former Suffolk County District Attorney Thomas Spota and Christopher McPartland, who had been his chief deputy, heard countless juries pronounce criminals guilty. Tuesday, the two men heard a jury proclaim their own guilt.

It was an important moment for Long Island.

The verdict, won by the U.S. attorney's office for the Eastern District, ended a systemic corruption of justice that began seven years ago with the beating of a suspect named Christopher Loeb. But this insidious culture so strongly rooted in Suffolk's police department,  district attorney's office, and even in its judiciary, hasn't been destroyed. The cleansing of those organizations, and the larger political culture that uses law enforcement as a power base, must continue. 

In December 2012, Loeb broke into the vehicle of then-Suffolk Police Chief James Burke and stole a duffel bag containing Burke's gun belt, ammunition, pornography, sex toys, Viagra and police union cards. While Loeb was being questioned by other officers, who already had beaten him in search of a confession, Burke beat Loeb and threatened to kill him.

Burke maintained his innocence until February 2016, when he pleaded guilty to violating Loeb's civil rights and conspiring to obstruct justice but refused to incriminate anyone else in the crimes. It has since been shown that at least 10 police officers participated in hiding the truth, along with Spota and McPartland. It is not clear how many more in the police department and the district attorney's office knew about the attack and conspiracy and failed to report it, but surely others did.

Neither organization's track record has earned  it the benefit of the doubt. And Suffolk taxpayers are on the hook for tens of millions of dollars for the illegal behavior.

Three decades ago, a report by the New York State Commission of Investigations about another era of malfeasance found a "fully documented record of misconduct and toleration for misconduct on the part of some members in the Suffolk County District Attorney's office which has misserved justice and the people of Suffolk County." Tuesday's verdict closed another chapter in that sad history. 

The police department, to highlight just some of its irregularities, has:

  • Remained under federal oversight since 2013 in response to the hate-crime killing of an Ecuadorian immigrant in 2008 that uncovered biased policing, allegations of police misconduct, a lack of attention to hate crimes and an unwillingness to provide language assistance to non-English speakers.
  • Removed officers from a federal gang task force over a personal grudge on Burke's part even as MS-13 became a deadly scourge.
  • Had two officers cover up the shooting of a cabdriver in Huntington Station by two drunken off-duty Nassau County police officers by attempting to force the victim into a criminal confession while he was sedated and recently shot. Spota essentially refused to investigate the case.

In the district attorney's office, some of the low points include:

  • The conviction of Keith Bush, then a junior at Bellport High School, of a murder he did not commit in 1976 via prosecutorial misconduct, and then the refusal to revisit the case for decades, including under Spota, despite overwhelming evidence suggesting Bush's innocence.
  • Prosecutor Glenn Kurtzrock's forced resignation in the middle of a murder trial when it was found he had hidden evidence favorable to the defendant.
  • A murder conviction against Shaun Lawrence that recently was vacated after 45 incidences of prosecutorial misconduct were substantiated.
  • Prosecutor John Scott Prudenti's rental of his party boat for cash to a defense attorney, Robert Macedonio, according to a Newsday investigation. Macedonio himself had been convicted of a felony cocaine possession charge that was later vacated with the help of Suffolk prosecutors. A Macedonio client then got unusually soft treatment from Prudenti.

The convictions of Spota and McPartland came about because several former officers who took part in Loeb's beating eventually told the truth, and because retired Suffolk police Lt. James Hickey laid out the scheme and convinced jurors that the wrongdoing took place. Hickey was, along with Spota, McPartland, Burke and former Chief of Detectives William Madigan, part of what Hickey called "the inner circle" and described a corrupt coalition of high-powered insiders who ran the Burke coverup and conspired to punish enemies and subvert the law. It's frightening, though, to see how easily the plot could have gone unpunished. The testimony is littered with fragments of deep involvement by the county's police unions. Federal prosecutors must stitch that evidence together to determine whether anyone else must be brought to justice.

Spota, who had every ballot line in his three reelection efforts, in 2005, 2009 and 2013, operated at the forefront of a political culture that is foul even when it is not criminal. It That culture wields a power  some police have abused in the streets, and police unions have held over elected officials.

Spota and McPartland, who face prison sentences of up to 20 years, know exactly how corruption works in Suffolk. Spota, in fact, was first elected in 2001 to clean it up  when voters threw out incumbent James Catterson. Catterson was elected to address the serious missteps of the office, documented in that 1989 Commission of Investigations report under his predecessor, Patrick Henry.

For Spota and McPartland, the only way to alleviate their disgrace and possibly lessen their sentences is for them to expose  all the poisons of the system, a goal federal prosecutors must pursue with or without their help. And Suffolk's leaders must continue their reforms.

After decades of an entrenched culture in which prosecutors protect the police, there is more to be done. This corruption must be killed at the root, and it's clear that after 30 years, the time is now.

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