Albany is known for its frequent corruption scandals, but when it comes to sheer outlandishness, Long Island may give the capital a run for its money.
A jury found former Suffolk County District Attorney Thomas Spota guilty of obstructing a federal civil rights investigation, the latest in Long Island’s proud tradition of corrupt public officials. The verdict brings to a close a seven-year saga that involved sex toys, cover-ups, beatings and political machinations. The case was confusing to follow, having spanned nearly a decade, two investigations, two trials and Suffolk’s web of political intrigue. So here’s what you need to know.
The police chief’s trial
Spota’s legal troubles began with former Suffolk County Police Chief of Department James Burke, who pleaded guilty to beating a suspect in 2012 and then trying to orchestrate a cover-up. Christoper Loeb, the suspect at the heart of the trial, had stolen a duffel bag out of Burke’s car which contained sex toys and pornopraphy. Burke assaulted Loeb while Loeb was in custody – Burke had been set off by Loeb calling him a pervert. Although federal prosecutors opened a civil rights investigation into the incident in 2013, it initially went nowhere. Burke admitted to attempting to prevent members of law enforcement from cooperating with investigators during the original probe. However, the probe reopened in 2015, prompting Burke to resign and finally plead guilty to civil rights violations for beating Loeb and conspiracy to commit obstruction of justice in 2016. Burke’s lawyer said the police chief “realized what he did” and was “very remorseful.” A judge sentenced Burke to 46 months in prison. Several officers pleaded guilty to the obstruction as well.
The 2015 probe also turned its attention to the Suffolk district attorney’s office and began to investigate its members’ roles in the original cover-up. Spota and his aide Christopher McPartland, division chief of investigations, were indicted in 2017.
Burke and Spota’s relationship spans decades, which could explain why the former district attorney put his neck on the line to help in the cover-up. The pair first met in 1979, when Burke was a teenage witness in a high-profile murder case that Spota was trying. He continued as a mentor to Burke throughout his police career, hiring him as an investigator in the district attorney’s office, and even recommending him to County Executive Steve Bellone for the Suffolk police chief position.
After Burke pleaded guilty, federal prosecutors turned their attention to Spota. Spota and McPartland were indicted in October 2017 for obstruction of justice, witness tampering and other related charges. Spota had campaigned on an anti-corruption platform when he was first elected, and McPartland ran the district attorney’s office’s political corruption unit. Spota resigned soon after the indictment, having previously announced he would not seek reelection before he was charged. According to court papers, a cooperating witness said Spota “went nuts” in 2015 when he learned the 2013 federal civil rights investigation into Burke had been reopened. He allegedly said that anyone cooperating with federal prosecutors was “dead.” The documents also revealed for the first time how the alleged cover-up was undertaken, saying it began on the very day Burke had beaten Loeb.
The trial for both Spota and McPartland officially began in November. One witness, former Suffolk County Police Lt. James Hickey, testified that he, Spota, Burke, McPartland and former Chief of Detectives William Madigan referred to themselves as the “Inner Circle,” a group of high-ranking law enforcement officials who tried to figure out who had “flipped” on their cover-up. Hickey said that Spota, Burke and McPartland further referred to themselves as “The Administration” for their control over criminal justice in the county. In their closing arguments, prosecutors said that Spota and his deputy had amassed near total control of Suffolk’s criminal justice system, and he would do anything to protect their “kingdom,” as prosecutors called it, not just his protege, Burke. Spota’s lawyer said that the prosecutors built their case on “guilt by association” and called the charges “nonsense.”
Evidently, the jury did not agree the charges were nonsense. It found both Spota and McPartland guilty on all counts on Dec. 17. Spota faces up to 20 years in prison.
Signs of corruption in Suffolk County law enforcement, and Spota’s “kingdom,” came to light independent of Burke’s trial as well. An extensive 2007 wiretapping operation of a politically connected lawyer revealed a criminal enterprise that led to very few prosecutions, supposedly because that lawyer cut a deal by volunteering valuable political intel. Bellone called for Spota’s resignation in 2016 over the wiretapping report.
The county politics
Spota’s trial and conviction is interwoven with Suffolk County politics, from rivalries to backroom deals. Suffolk Democratic Chairman Rich Schaffer, a longtime friend of Spota, came out on the former district attorney’s side. He said a day after Spota announced he would step down that the district attorney should not have resigned when he did and upheld his innocence until proven guilty. Bellone, who has butted heads with Schaffer, immediately called for Spota’s resignation, claiming he was running a “criminal enterprise.” Bellone has since painted Spota as the paragon of Long Island corruption, pointing to the fact that Spota won reelection with his name on every ballot line available thanks to fusion voting and backroom deals. Bellone also offered the ex-district attorney’s circumstances as proof that fusion voting leads to corruption. Bellone, an ally of Gov. Andrew Cuomo, has advocated for an end to fusion voting, which was discussed by the state Campaign Finance Reform Commission convened in part by Cuomo. Critics of the commission considered it an avenue for the governor to end fusion voting to punish the Working Families Party, an allegation Cuomo has denied.
Although Bellone had never been a Spota ally, he heeded Spota’s recommendation to appoint Burke as chief of department in 2012 – despite an anonymous letter warning Bellone that appointing Burke would only lead to scandal. The letter said Burke frequented prostitutes, one of whom allegedly stole his service weapon. Reporting in 2013 revealed that Burke had lost his gun twice while also in a relationship with a known felon in the 1990s. And Bellone supported Burke even after allegations came out about the beating and throughout the federal investigation. (Bellone and Burke agreed Burke would resign when the probe reopened in 2015 “in the best interest of Suffolk County.”) Bellone did not extend the same courtesy to Spota.
In another bit of political intrigue, testimony from Spota’s trial revealed that Burke had ordered members of the Criminal Intelligence Unit to spy on the county executive in 2012.
Clarification: This story was updated with details about the timing of Burke's resignation.
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