Former Suffolk County District Attorney Thomas Spota. File photo

How are we to react to the federal court conviction of Suffolk’s former district attorney, and his chief ADA in charge of prosecuting corruption? What are we to make of new, deeply disturbing revelations in that trial of how our ex-chief of police of the Suffolk PD conducted himself?

What role did the ever-powerful police unions have in this renegade abuse of power? Is the term “enabler” an apt description for each of the political party leaders who control party nominations? And does that same term apply to elected officials who appoint corrupt PD chiefs?

It was one chilling disclosure after another in the corruption trial of Suffolk’s former DA. He and his co-defendant ADA, along with the already jailed PD chief, ruled the county as a self-serving trio who thrived on intimidation and threats. In both the county PD and the DA’s office, there were those who were in with this trio, and those who were not. Cross them, or even be perceived or suspected of crossing them, and you, your career, even your family, were toast. The simple rule was that an enemy of any one of these three was an enemy of them all.

One police officer testified at the corruption trial that when he had to appear earlier before a federal grand jury, he hid his wife and children in a hotel to shield them from the wrath of the trio. He feared not only that his kids would be targeted with trumped up charges, but also he feared for his own life.

Almost unnoticed in the audience throughout this trial was a police officer from the Suffolk PD’s Internal Affairs bureau, quietly taking notes. We’ll discuss more about unexplained goings-on in Internal Affairs shortly.

Thanks to this trio, illegal wiretaps, installation of tracking devices on vehicles, and sudden demotions had become part of Suffolk’s law enforcement culture, where the detectives and police who fell into disfavor were the targets. Here’s a fair question: Were private citizens ever the targets of this manipulative threesome? What other lives have been ruined that have never come to light, and maybe never will?

One small comfort is that this startling glimpse into the evil of their handiwork was made possible at a federal trial, presided over by a judge with a lifetime appointment to the bench. Had a locally elected judge presided, no doubt the police unions’ pivotal role in so many judicial elections might have fostered a far different outcome.

While we’re on the subject of the Suffolk PD unions, is there any doubt that they were keenly aware of this trio’s ruthlessly unlawful methods? And just what did they do about it? At the federal trial, one of the prosecutors highlighted evidence showing that the ex-chief had the police unions “in his pocket.” And exactly how was the chief’s appointment to his job, by the current county executive, all quietly arranged even before that county executive was himself elected? Who brokered that shameful pact?

And where was the county legislature, ever submissive to the unions’ slightest whim, when stories and rumors of the trio’s antics emerged with the regularity of night following day? Does the answer lie in the fact that the county legislators, for their part, are in the unions’ pockets, just as the unions were in the corrupt chief’s pocket?

Case in point: the new superior officers contract that the county can ill afford, with nearly a 12 percent raise over several years, sailed through the legislature’s key committee without the input from the legislature’s own budget review office. At the plenary session that followed, the full legislature quickly approved it with a compliant, lopsided vote, all while the federal trial was underway.

Our disgust here should not center only on public officials. Party officials need to take this trial, and all the corruption it has revealed (or shall we say, confirmed) as a warning against back room, cross-endorsement deals. These party leaders, both Democratic and Republican, along with their “dog wagging the tail” minor party bosses, made sure in past years that this DA ran unopposed a few times to succeed himself. But not to worry – why should they care about enabling abuse of power when they were obviously forever shielded by the DA’s gratitude to them?

Reform is a key word here. The previous county executive (prior to the incumbent) could well be described as a reformer. Yet, for undisclosed reasons, he decided against running for re-election after a private meeting with the DA (when the latter was at the top of his malodorous game.) Did the wily DA bring to this meeting any “persuasive “ information that others in the trio, with their now infamous methods, might have provided?

Note that this secret meeting opened the way to the election of the current county executive, who quickly brought about the appointment of the PD chief, the DA’s long-time protege. From the trio’s warped perspective, this whole scenario, still shrouded in mystery, worked out marvelously. How they must have celebrated!

But reform is so worth pursuing, and the Suffolk PD commissioner offers the ideal starting point. For her part, she should form a working group, something in the nature of a task force, comprised of very carefully selected experts, retirees and rank-and-file volunteers from within and outside the department. Equip them with total access to personnel, as well as files and other records, and task them with the mission of recommending how to undo the shameful culture that the federal trial uncovered.

Among the PD records to which this task force should have access are the 84 complaints of police misconduct that never saw the light of day, that sat in limbo for unknown reasons in the PD’s internal affairs bureau. The last police commish, who is now himself the DA (after the DA from the trio resigned), yielded to outrageous demands from the police union leadership that these complaints be dismissed without any hearing, and dismissed they surely were.

Let the current PD commish, with full backing from the county executive who appointed her (an ideal opportunity for the CE to make amends for his enabler’s role) announce an “open door policy” for the entire department. Taking a page from Abe Lincoln, she should invite any police officer to meet her privately and in confidence if the chain of command would be unable or unwilling to address an issue. If it worked well with a president in wartime, it could go a long way toward disassembling the alarming culture of corruption that the federal trial highlighted for all to see.

The PD commissioner could be a real trailblazer of reform for Suffolk County, in the fabulous tradition of a legendary NYC police commish of years ago, Teddy Roosevelt.

Finally, the police unions themselves should voluntarily pass to their members the role of deciding which candidates for county office they support. Let the members rather than the bosses of the PBA, SOA and the rest of the law enforcement unions select by secret ballot the candidates whom the PD union leaders will support in the election campaigns. This will eventually go a long way to restoring the oversight role of law enforcement to those whom we the people elect. For years in this county, it has been the reverse, setting the tone for this shocking abuse of power.

These suggested reforms are only a start. Much needs to be done to resurrect the good name of Suffolk’s law enforcement community, and to address the harsh impact of a disgraced district attorney and police chief. For the sake of the ideals so cherished by countless career professionals and their families, as well as those in future generations, we have no choice but to confront this daunting and unavoidable challenge. And don’t expect it to be easy. As the reform Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia observed: “As long as a person talks about great American standards, he is applauded; when he asks to put them into practice, he is a radical.”

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Greg Blass
Greg has spent his life in public service since he enlisted in the U.S. Navy as a teenager. He is a former Suffolk County Family Court judge, six-term Suffolk County legislator and commissioner of Social Services. Now retired, Greg is active in volunteer work and is a board member of several charities. He lives in Jamesport. Email Greg