U.S. District Judge Joan Azrack acted after defense attorneys said the amount of pretrial discovery material federal prosecutors have handed over is too ‘voluminous’ to review in time for the trial set for May 14.
By Robert E. Kessler
A federal judge on Monday delayed until November the cover-up and obstruction of justice trials of former Suffolk County District Attorney Thomas Spota and the head of his anti-corruption unit, Christopher McPartland.
U.S. District Judge Joan Azrack in Central Islip acted after federal prosecutors and defense attorneys said the amount of pretrial discovery material federal prosecutors continue to hand over is far too “voluminous” to review in time for the scheduled trial date of May 14.
Eastern District federal prosecutor Lara Treinis Gatz told the judge the government is still turning over tens of thousands of pages of e-mails from 2012 to 2017 from Suffolk County, involving nine unnamed people. Treinis Gatz said the county email system was antiquated and the government is taking longer than anticipated to copy it.
Spota and McPartland were each indicted on four felony charges: conspiracy to tamper with witnesses and obstruct an official proceeding; witness tampering and obstruction of an official proceeding; obstruction of justice; and accessory after the fact to the deprivation of civil rights. They each face up to 20 years in prison if convicted, but would probably receive a lesser sentence under federal sentencing guidelines.
Treinis Gatz said the government is also turning over a four-month-long wiretap recording. The wiretap was ordered by Spota’s office on the cellphone of a person identified as “John Doe # 2” in court papers, ostensibly as part of a leak investigation. But the circumstances of the probe match the description of the case of former Suffolk detective John Oliva.
Oliva was removed by former Suffolk Police Chief James Burke from the FBI’s Long Island Gang Task Force in an action that caused a firestorm because of Oliva’s reputation as an effective investigator of street gangs. Federal officials investigated the wiretap ordered by Spota to see if Oliva’s civil rights had been violated.
Eventually, Oliva resigned from the police force, acknowledged he had leaked information to a Newsday reporter, pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor of official misconduct, and got a conditional discharge.
Treinis Gatz, along with federal prosecutors John Durhan and Justina Geraci, declined to comment, as did Spota’s attorney Alan Vinegrad. McPartland’s attorney Larry Krantz, sent an email statement saying: “Chris McPartland has always vigorously asserted his innocence, and looks forward to the trial in November.”
Spota and McPartland are charged with covering up the 2012 beating by Burke of Christopher Loeb, in December 2012, after Loeb, then 26, broke into Burke’s departmental sport utility vehicle and stole his duffel bag. Burke is completing a federal prison sentence for civil rights violations and obstruction of justice in the beating.
Federal prosecutors said in a pre-sentencing memorandum that Burke’s obstruction scheme included “the recruiting of high-ranking officials from other county agencies to assist him in the obstruction and to give teeth to his threats.”
Spota and McPartland and their attorneys last week agreed, only under a protective order, to receive documents involving the Suffolk County government emails .
The protective order requires the defendants and their attorneys not to disclose “sensitive and/or personal information” contained in the emails, according to court papers. The personal information was included in order to avoid “the need for extensive redaction of the material,’’ the court papers said.
Under terms of the protective order, defense attorneys may get copies of the emails in preparation for the defense, but must return the copies at the end of the trial. But Spota and McPartland can only read the material in the presence of their lawyers, the court papers said.
Spota and McPartland have been barred from contacting witnesses in the case and are permitted to talk with each other only with their attorneys present.
Previous court records have outlined a large part of the government’s case.
According to court papers filed by the prosecution, there are two former members of the Suffolk County police department who are cooperating with the government after pleading guilty to obstruction of justice and are hoping to get a reduced sentence. One cooperator is described only as “Cooperating Defendant #1; the other as “SCPD Member 5, who prosecutors say took part in the assault on Loeb, along with Burke two other former Suffolk police officers.
Prosecutors have said in court papers that their case will be backed up by other material, “including other [unnamed] witnesses and documentary evidence, including telephone records.”
A federal agent got a search warrant to get the cell phone records of Burke, Spota, and McPartland, and five former unnamed member of the Suffolk police department. One of the five is also identified as being involved with the Suffolk Detectives Association, according to the prosecutors’ papers.
Cell phone records can be used to indicate the time and approximate location of users of the phones, possibly supporting cooperating witnesses’ testimony.
Prosecutors have said in court papers that part of the government’s case involves meetings that occurred at an athletic field next to county police headquarters in Yaphank; Spota’s office; a wake in Farmingdale; “at [an unnamed] high school in Smithtown;” at an unnamed Asian restaurant in St. James; and the parking lot of St. Patrick’s Church in Smithtown. There is no suggestion that church or high school employees are involved in the case.