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It’s time for Thomas Spota to step down as district attorney

Suffolk County District Attorney Thomas Spota leaves North

Suffolk County District Attorney Thomas Spota leaves North Shore University Hospital in Manhasset on Wednesday, Feb. 26, 2014. He was there visiting Oheka Castle owner Gary Melius. Credit: Howard Schnapp

Suffolk County District Attorney Thomas Spota swept into office nearly 15 years ago as a reformer intent on changing the culture of cronyism and corruption of his predecessor, James Catterson. Spota was well-intentioned, but he became part of the culture he sought to replace. It’s time for him to step down.

Spota’s nurturance of the career of protégé James Burke is a troubling example of the danger of appointing friends to positions of power with little regard for qualifications, background or suitability. Burke’s rogue behavior was well-known throughout his career, including when he was promoted to Spota’s chief investigator and later as Suffolk’s chief of police.

This is based on internal affairs investigations that have come to light, and Burke’s associations with people with questionable and criminal backgrounds. Suffolk taxpayers should not be subjected to more political double-talk. Someone should take responsibility for this level of misconduct and corruption, and the majority of the blame falls on Spota.

Throughout his tenure, Spota has tried to conceal information, protect his friends and exert power over other elected and government officials, giving his administration a reputation as a nest of political corruption.

My own difficulties with Spota began in 2012, when Edward Walsh, the then-Suffolk County Conservative Party leader and former corrections lieutenant employed with the sheriff’s office, was participating in an illegal gambling operation when it was raided. My attempts to obtain police reports and photographs of the incident were stonewalled by Spota’s office and the Suffolk police Internal Affairs Unit, which reported to Burke. A motion filed by federal prosecutors in March revealed that Spota refused to issue a subpoena to aid my office’s internal affairs investigation of Walsh, who was convicted later that month on federal charges of theft of government funds and wire fraud. Spota’s actions forced me to seek assistance from the U.S. attorney’s office to address the wider issue of corruption in the DA’s office.

The allegations mounting against Spota and his staff and the possibility of more criminal indictments, in my view, have left the county criminal justice system in turmoil.

According to Newsday, Christopher McPartland, Spota’s top corruption prosecutor, is the target of a federal grand jury. Allegations of impropriety have been raised about Spota’s prosecution of defense attorney Robert Macedonio, and federal investigators have subpoenaed records concerning the handling of that case. Also, John Scott Prudenti, Spota’s vehicular crimes bureau chief and a former deputy chief of major crimes, accepted payments from defense attorneys for use of his boat for parties attended by lawyers, judges, prosecutors and Spota himself.

Such behavior is a conflict of interest for Prudenti and an embarrassment to Spota. As the county’s chief prosecutor responsible for the pursuit of justice, Spota and his office must be beyond reproach. I have lost confidence in his objectivity and judgment, and feel obligated to request a special prosecutor for criminal cases that would typically be sent by my office to Spota’s for prosecution. When law enforcement and Suffolk residents lose faith in the DA’s office, it hurts the integrity of the criminal justice system.

I hope that other officials will join me in calling for Spota’s resignation. But we must not stop there. If we have learned anything from probes of government corruption, it’s that there must be a healthy separation among those who are charged with making the laws, investigating crimes and prosecuting wrongdoers.

We need new, bold and untainted leadership in the district attorney’s office.

Vincent F. DeMarco is Suffolk County sheriff. This op-ed will appear in print on Tuesday.

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