Former Suffolk County District Attorney Thomas Spota. File photo: Denise Civiletti

Once again, we the people are favored with an unusual peek into the never-ending, behind-the-scenes antics of the Suffolk County power elite. Courtesy of the judge in the recent federal corruption trial of Suffolk’s former district attorney, it paints a picture that’s a sight to behold. Hold onto your hats.

Suffolk’s former and current county executives, former and current district attorneys, the former DA’s chief assistant DA, the former SCPD chief of department, and a couple of police commissioners and union bosses, round out the unseemly cast of characters. This column is a bit lengthy, but please follow what it offers. The people need to know. It’s quite a tale, and it almost rivals Virgil’s Aeneid.

During former DA Thomas Spota’s trial, the judge wouldn’t allow the jury to see certain evidence that the prosecutors offered, even though it showed a pattern of heavy-handed abuse of power. The judge ruled it was more than the jury needed to see. But after the jury found the Spota and his chief assistant Christopher McPartland guilty of obstructing justice, the judge released a hefty bundle — 1,000 pages in all — of really concerning materials to the public.

Newsday touted its exclusive report on the contents of the judge’s release on May 2. But Newsday — as it’s prone to do, to protect Suffolk’s Democratic Party mucky-mucks — stopped short with certain information.

A few weeks earlier, Newsday did an “exclusive” report on the enormous political and financial power of Suffolk’s police unions. But they stopped short there as well, awkwardly omitting how current District Attorney Tim Sini, as well as Suffolk’s current County Executive Steve Bellone, are also knee deep in these little games, played under the radar. More on that in a moment.

Prior to Spota’s trial, the feds were probing then Suffolk police chief James Burke for beating a handcuffed suspect who was charged with stealing the angry chief’s duffel bag, full of the chief’s nifty playthings. The police chief pleaded guilty in a separate case, avoiding a trial, and served a jail sentence.

But the DA and his chief assistant, who tried to protect their police chief buddy, and each other, by interfering with the feds’ investigation, went to trial for their obstruction. They await sentencing, set for June 30. Their trial, and the documents just released, shed light not only on the former DA and his assistant, but also on the police chief’s tyrannical reign in the SCPD. It’s a rare glimpse into the workings of Suffolk’s sordid, shadow government at the top.

Among other things, these released materials contain sworn statements by the government’s star witness, who would have testified at the trial, that this bullying trio — Spota, McPartland and Burke, who was then the DA’s detective investigator — anxiously wanted Burke to be chief of the Suffolk County Police Department. But then-county executive Steve Levy would have none of it, and wouldn’t appoint a police commish who in turn would appoint the trio’s man to be chief.

Enraged, the trio saw Levy as “uncontrollable.” And because this duly elected county executive was frugal, opposed to senseless police contract giveaways, the trio as well branded him “anti-cop.” They orchestrated, far and wide, a sleazy and false muttering campaign against him. In their shocking agenda, he had to go — and soon.

Meanwhile, Levy switched parties and campaigned for the Republican nod for governor of New York. That effort failed, but the trio — Spota, McPartland and Burke, who longed to be SCPD chief — saw their chance. It’s a fair question whether they illegally listened for anything that might pop up. Lo and behold, they uncovered “campaign fundraising irregularities” in the former county executive’s office.

It has been acknowledged that Levy did not personally profit from these fundraising violations, but DA Spota, at the height of his power, made a deal to drop his fundraising investigation if Levy did not seek re-election. Soon he was gone, and more importantly, out of the trio’s way.

What followed is unnerving. Newsday left this out. The next (and current) county executive, who ran with major Suffolk PBA support — big bucks, phone banks, mailers, robocalls, truck posters, radio/TV ads etc. — was elected. He also wants to be governor. But how did he repay those who made his win happen?

Right after the trio paved the way for County Executive Steve Bellone’s first election, he and the Democratic legislative majority proclaimed a “nationwide search” for a new police commissioner with much fanfare — and fawning from Newsday. But it was all fixed, and Bellone’s new commissioner, Edward Webber, was hired with the precondition that he appoint the trio’s man as SCPD chief of department.

And so the Bellone’s new police commissioner dutifully appointed the DA’s protege, Burke, as police chief. A number of warnings about the new chief reached the new county executive, several from police officers. But he ignored them all and made sure the trio was happy.

Bellone went on to make sure the PBA was happy as well, “negotiating” huge salary and benefits packages that crippled county finances, fostering nearly junk bond ratings for Suffolk, well before any pandemic.

Then the DA himself wanted to run for another term, and sued Suffolk County to be exempt from the term limits law. Bellone and his legislative majority incredibly declined to defend against this lawsuit, even though there was substantial case law on the county’s side. Spota won the suit, and easily won another term. But if the term limits law, forever undermined by Suffolk’s Democratic power brokers, had been able to work as it should, imagine what Suffolk would have been spared!

Meanwhile, Burke indulged in a reign of terror in the SCPD, with testimony at Spota’s trial of harassing, illegally surveilling, intimidating and wiretapping other cops he disliked, while promoting police officers and detectives who were favored by the trio. Word has just leaked about a scandalous system of fixed promotions in the SCPD.

Ousting former county exec Levy under the radar, however, was their most prideful achievement. Borrowing from the title of the John Wayne movie, “The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance,” they boastfully introduced Spota’s chief assistant, before their own ignoble downfall, as “The Man Who Killed” Levy.

Reflect on this for a moment: What kind of effect did this bunch have on other elected officials? Consider their impact of fear on the rank-and-file police officers of Suffolk? The trial and these papers paint a troubling picture of that as well.

With these convictions, you would think that the people of Suffolk County finally can take some solace that the county executive’s and district attorney’s offices have, at long last, been cleaned up.

Think again…

Bellone, once the apple of that sordid trio’s eyes, publicly turned on his mentors when the trio’s ship started taking on water. With Burke’s downfall, damage control required his police commissioner appoint a replacement chief, also at the direction of the police union bosses. Bellone also appointed a new police commissioner, Sini. They all learned the hard way, with egg on their faces, that their shell game to create their last chief was a doozy.

Now follow this one: with this new police commish, Bellone had an epiphany, as though lightning struck: his new police commissioner Sini would be the ideal replacement for the DA who’d crashed and burned. But how to get him there?

That was easy. The PBA shelled out another big-bucks effort to get Sini elected Suffolk DA. But there was a little matter of some unpleasant police misconduct cases that were sitting, with mysteriously no action taken, in the SCPD’s internal affairs unit.

All this police commish had to do was dismiss these pesky misconduct complaints – 84 in all. Since no one demands their release (who would dare in this county), no one knows what these complaints were about (though it is known that some of the complainants were themselves police officers).

So a familiar chronology ensued. The ambitious commissioner dismissed the misconduct complaints, then announced he’s running for Suffolk district attorney, then gets endorsed by the Suffolk police unions, and then receives bundles of PBA campaign cash and other support, all in a matter of a few short weeks. Bellone, his legislative majority and the union bosses indulged in a bit of group giddiness at how well their “reforms” were going.

And there’s more. The Democrat-controlled Public Safety Committee of the county legislature, which is charged with oversight of the police department, received news of the dismissal of those 84 complaints of police misconduct as if it were a weather report —  with no comment. Note that most county legislators, like their county executive, receive plenty of campaign donations from Suffolk’s police unions and get plenty of “lobbying” input from them as well.

Besides, any questions to the rising star police commissioner Sini (still in the job at this point) about his unprecedented erasure of internal affairs cases, would not have made sense, as he skipped this meeting. Always present for the public safety committee’s meetings, as he should be, he somehow missed that one. And PS: he’s now Suffolk’s DA, our chief law enforcement officer.

With these incumbents in charge, where does it all end? Until the next federal case, where there’s an actual trial instead of a guilty plea, we may never know. But we do know that one party in charge for too long – far too long – whether Democratic or Republican — is as bad for Suffolk County as it is for New York City, New York State, and such towns as Riverhead.

Correction: Due to an editing error, the name of former police commissioner Edward Webber was omitted from this column when originally published.

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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