SUFFOLK COUNTY, NY — A powerful former prosecutor in the New York suburbs is going on trial this week for allegedly helping cover for a former protege who, as police chief, punched a handcuffed man suspected of stealing embarrassing items from his police department SUV, including sex toys and pornography.
Thomas Spota, the longtime district attorney of Suffolk County, Long Island, is accused of conspiring with the police chief and a top deputy in the DA’s office to pressure witnesses to not cooperate with an FBI investigation into the 2012 assault.
According to federal prosecutors, Spota considered anyone cooperating with the investigation into then-Chief James Burke a “rat,” demanded that a police officer find out who was cooperating and threatened that informants “would never work in Suffolk County again.”
Spota and Burke had a kinship that dated to the ex-chief’s teenage years in the late 1970s, when he was a star witness in a murder case that Spota was prosecuting.
Spota later hired Burke to work in his office as an investigator, promoted him to chief investigator and vouched for him when he was appointed chief of the police department, one of the largest suburban forces in the country with 2,500 officers.
Spota, now 78, and the former chief of his anti-corruption bureau, Christopher McPartland, 53, are going on trial two years after they were indicted on witness tampering, obstruction of justice and conspiracy charges.
Opening statements are scheduled for Thursday. The trial, at the federal courthouse in Central Islip, Long Island, is expected to take about four weeks.
Both men have pleaded not guilty and are free on $500,000 bond each. Their lawyers have said they deny all allegations of wrongdoing. Spota’s lawyer, Alan Vinegrad, said after the October 2017 arraignment that the former district attorney “looks forward to vindicating himself in court.”
The criminal charges hastened Spota’s exit from office after 16 years as the top prosecutor in Suffolk County, the bigger of Long Island’s two suburban counties with about 1.5 million residents.
Already a lame duck for foregoing a re-election bid, Spota announced his retirement just days after he was charged amid growing pressure from politicians and the public. If convicted, he and McPartland each face up to 20 years in prison.
Burke, now 55, pleaded guilty in February 2016 to violating punch victim Christopher Loeb’s civil rights and obstructing justice for leading a conspiracy to conceal his involvement in the assault. He finished his prison sentence in April.
Burke attacked Loeb in a police station interrogation room after Loeb was arrested for breaking into the ex-chief’s unlocked, department-issued GMC Yukon and stealing a bag containing his gun belt, ammunition, a box of cigars and a bag containing sex toys and pornography.
Loeb’s three-year prison sentence was vacated after Burke pleaded guilty. Authorities suspect he was stealing from cars to buy heroin.
Federal prosecutors hinted at Spota and McPartland’s alleged involvement in the cover up prior to Burke’s sentencing, writing in court papers that “high-ranking officials” from other Suffolk County agencies had helped the former chief silence potential whistleblowers.
According to federal prosecutors, Spota, McPartland, Burke and other police officers met and spoke by phone to discuss how to conceal Burke’s role in the assault on Loeb. In addition to pressuring people not to cooperate, they asked witnesses to provide investigators with false information and withhold relevant information from investigators, federal prosecutors said.
Police officers who received subpoenas from the FBI were interrogated afterward by Burke’s allies about whether they had talked, prosecutors said. Some were warned that if they admitted wrongdoing, their union would not pay their legal fees, prosecutors said.
Some police officers were in the interrogation room when Burke walked in and punched Loeb, prosecutors said.
At an August 2015 meeting involving some of the people involved in the alleged cover-up, prosecutors said, McPartland warned that Loeb “did not get beaten badly and there were no marks and that nothing would happen as long as the people that were in the room with (Loeb) did not talk.”