Ex-Suffolk County District Attorney Thomas Spota and his former top deputy were alternately described Thursday as corrupt prosecutors who allegedly conspired to cover up police brutality and as victims of overzealous federal investigators.
Those were the two competing pictures painted by federal prosecutors and defense attorneys for Spota and his co-defendant Christopher McPartland, the district attorney’s Government Corruption Bureau and investigations chief, during opening statements in their trial at Central Islip federal court.
“This is a case about two corrupt lawyers … who abused the power, the authority, the influence, and the positions of trust they held as the top prosecutors in the Suffolk County District Attorney’s Office, all to protect their close friend — a crooked cop who beat a prisoner,” Justina Geraci, the Assistant U.S. Attorney for the Eastern District of New York who is prosecuting the case, told the court. “Why? Because they could. Because they thought they were above the law. But they were wrong.”
Spota and McPartland pleaded not guilty in 2017 after they were indicted on charges of obstruction of justice, conspiracy to tamper with witnesses and obstruct an official proceeding, witness tampering and obstruction of an official proceeding and accessory after the fact to the deprivation of civil rights. They are free on $500,000 bail. Spota resigned after being indicted.
Federal prosecutors alleged Spota, McPartland and ex-Suffolk police chief James Burke conspired to conceal Burke’s role in beating a suspect that stole a bag of sex toys, pornography, and ammunition from the chief’s SUV in 2012, authorities said. They also allegedly talked about using their power to cover up the chief’s attempted cover up of the beating that Burke ultimately pleaded guilty to in 2016. Burke has since been sentenced and released from prison.
In addition, they allegedly used intimidation, threats and corrupt persuasion to pressure multiple witnesses, including co-conspirators, not to cooperate with the federal investigation, to provide false information, including false testimony under oath and to withhold relevant information from investigators, prosecutors said.
The thief, Christopher Loeb, a recovering heroin addict, also served time, had his conviction vacated, and later won a $1.5 million settlement from the county.
The prosecution’s star witness is Suffolk County police Lt. James Hickey, then the commanding officer of the Criminal Intelligence Unit, who Spota, McPartland, and Burke tasked with orchestrating the cover up and making sure detectives who witnessed the Loeb’s beating didn’t cooperate with federal investigators, authorities said.
“Were they holding up?” Spota allegedly asked Hickey, referring to whether the detectives were “towing the line” or “left the reservation,” according to Geraci.
Defense attorneys questioned the mental state of Hickey, who had been treated for with alcoholism, and whether he can properly recall events and specific conversations, given his condition.
The defense argued that phone conversations that the prosecutors cite as evidence don’t prove a crime, there are no texts or recordings to prove Spota and McPartland did anything illegal other than care, and it is not illegal to be friends with Burke, who the defense painted as a cunning manipulator who convinced Spota and McPartland of his innocence.
Prosecutors maintained that the jury will find no choice but to convict the defendants.
“After you have heard and seen all the evidence in this case, you will have no doubt,” Geraci said. “You will be convinced that McPartland and Spota are guilty of every count.”