AP NEWS

Powerful ex-prosecutor convicted in police beating cover-up

December 17, 2019 GMT
FILE - In this Oct. 25, 2017, file photo Suffolk County District Attorney Thomas Spota leaves the courthouse in Central Islip, N.Y. The former prosecutor was convicted Tuesday, Dec. 17, 2019, on charges he helped 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. (AP Photo/Seth Wenig, File)
FILE - In this Oct. 25, 2017, file photo Suffolk County District Attorney Thomas Spota leaves the courthouse in Central Islip, N.Y. The former prosecutor was convicted Tuesday, Dec. 17, 2019, on charges he helped 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. (AP Photo/Seth Wenig, File)

NEW YORK (AP) — A powerful former prosecutor in the New York suburbs was convicted Tuesday of helping cover for a police chief who punched a handcuffed man suspected of stealing sex toys and pornography from the chief’s department SUV.

Thomas Spota, 78, the longtime district attorney of Suffolk County, Long Island, was accused of conspiring with the police chief, James Burke, and a top deputy in the DA’s office to pressure witnesses to not cooperate with an FBI investigation into the 2012 assault.

Christopher McPartland, 54, former chief of Spota’s anti-corruption bureau, was also convicted on witness tampering, obstruction of justice and conspiracy charges. They each face up to 20 years in prison.

“I’m ecstatic right now,” punch victim Christopher Loeb told reporters outside the courthouse.

The verdict came after a five-week trial that shined a light on corruption at the highest levels of law enforcement in Suffolk County.

Spota’s lawyer, Alan Vinegrad, said in a closing argument that the former prosecutor had taken steps to get the beating investigated and that the case was “guilt by association.” He blamed Spota’s subordinates for paperwork describing Burke as a crime victim not perpetrator.

“This is a cover-up? This is obstruction? Nonsense!” Vinegrad said.

The criminal charges hastened Spota’s exit from office after 16 years as the top prosecutor in Suffolk, the bigger of Long Island’s two suburban counties with about 1.5 million residents. Already a lame duck, Spota announced his retirement days after he was charged.

Burke, now 55, pleaded guilty in February 2016 to violating Loeb’s civil rights and obstructing justice for leading the 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, sex toys, pornography and a bottle of Viagra with his name on it.

Almost immediately after the beating, Burke started working with Spota, McPartland and other police officials to protect himself from scrutiny, federal prosecutors said. At one point Burke had a fishing boat he was on turn around so he could get back to Long Island and deal with the investigation.

They concocted a story that Burke was an innocent bystander who never entered the interrogation room where Loeb was being held, pressured witnesses not to cooperate and asked some to give false information, prosecutors said. One detective was charged with perjury for lying under oath.

For more than a year, federal investigators found themselves unable to get anyone beside Loeb to say what happened. Then, a detective who was in the room broke ranks, accepted immunity offer and led them not only to the truth about the assault, but the cover up as well.

Former Suffolk County police Lt. James Hickey, a key prosecution witness, recalled a meeting where he said Spota asked him: “Who do you think flipped?”

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.

Heading the district attorney’s office and the police department, Spota and Burke “believed that they were untouchable,” Assistant U.S. Attorney Justina Geraci said at the start of the trial. “That they could do whatever they wanted and get away with it.”

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Follow Michael Sisak on Twitter at twitter.com/mikesisak