The men vying to be elected Suffolk County district attorney, incumbent Thomas Spota and his challenger Raymond Perini, played largely forgotten roles in county law enforcement’s most turbulent era.
In the late 1980s, state and local investigators probed widespread misconduct, much of it criminal, in the district attorney’s office and county police department. Supporters of the investigations said systemic failures were being exposed. Those in the spotlight called the inquiries vendettas.
The scrutiny culminated in a controversial 1989 report by the now-defunct State Commission of Investigation. The report presented a disturbing portrait of a broken county law enforcement system. Perini, and to a lesser extent Spota, are both linked to allegations of misconduct in the report, although neither man was ultimately charged with wrongdoing.
The commission’s investigation was triggered by the following complaint by Suffolk County Judge Stuart Namm, who wrote a letter to then-Gov. Mario Cuomo in 1985:
In two consecutive highly publicized murder trials, I have witnessed, among other things, such apparent prosecutorial misconduct as perjury, subornation of perjury, intimidation of witnesses, spoliation of evidence, abuse of subpoena power and the aforesaid attempts to intimidate a sitting judge.
The commission, which could issue subpoenas, take testimony and make findings but not bring charges, concluded that Perini had been “irresponsible and grossly unprofessional” as head of narcotics prosecutions in the district attorney’s office.
Perini left the office in 1989, shortly before the commission’s report alleged he had condoned illegal wiretaps and other abuses of power. The commission passed on those allegations to a special prosecutor, who found that although the illegal wiretaps happened on Perini’s watch, there wasn’t conclusive evidence that Perini knew of the activity.
Spota, who faces Perini in a GOP primary Tuesday, had already left the district attorney’s office in 1982 to run a private law practice by the time the investigations were underway. Unlike Perini, Spota was not a focus for SIC investigators. Rather, he was a strident defender of officers hauled before the state commission, which was scathing in its assessment of then-District Attorney Patrick Henry, Spota’s former boss.
Though investigators never accused him of misconduct, Spota and his law firm were named by two Suffolk County police officers in an alleged kickback scheme involving referrals in drunken driving cases. The state commission also noted a history of Suffolk prosecutors relying on improperly obtained confessions in homicide cases. Left unsaid: Spota was in charge of homicide prosecutions during a portion of the period of concern to investigators.
The 1980s reports most recently surfaced during the 2001 district attorney’s campaign in Suffolk County. Incumbent James Catterson tried to link challenger Spota to cases criticized in the state report.
A look at the issues that were examined by these probes:
... the Commission is forced to conclude that Perini knowingly allowed, and indeed condoned, illegal wiretapping ...
As chief of the DA's Narcotics Bureau, Perini oversaw the Suffolk County PD's Interdiction Unit, which used an electronic surveillance device called a pen register to investigate drug cases. The pen register allowed detectives to monitor a suspect's phone line by tracking the incoming and outgoing phone numbers.
During public hearings in 1988, two former members of the Interdiction Unit — James Kuhn and Joseph Russo — testified that they and their colleagues "had regularly modified pen registers, through the addition of tape recorders and/or speakers, to engage in illegal wiretapping."
Perini said he was particularly incensed by testimony Wednesday from two former police officers, who alleged that Perini knew of and encouraged illegal wiretapping during drug probes. ... Perini, however, said that the two former narcotics officers were admitted cocaine users, and that the allegations were groundless.
In a recent interview, Perini said that as narcotics bureau chief he took extraordinary care in handling wiretaps. He said he thought the illegal wiretapping was an isolated incident, not systemic. The accusations that he knew about the illegal behavior, he said, were made by cops angry at him for going after them for their illegal drug use.
When the SIC comes to town and bludgeons me ... they chose to go with the allegations of Russo, who I did investigate, I came very close to nailing ... and Kuhn who I think Russo manipulated, and Sloane, who is just kind of like a left fielder. I didn’t even work with the guy. ... They chose to do that and they got great headlines, but the bottom line is that the U.S. attorney’s office looked at the wiretap allegations and found nothing.
The SIC also investigated allegations that Timothy Gallagher, the son of Suffolk Chief of Detectives John Gallagher, received favorable treatment after he was arrested for selling cocaine to an undercover police officer.
Although Timothy Gallagher did not cooperate with police, he received special treatment as an informant, based on a letter that falsely said he helped provide information on six narcotics cases.
The SIC noted that Perini was one of five officials in the police department and DA’s office involved in approving the false letter, and they considered it a fireable offense.
John Gallagher was ultimately indicted on felony charges of falsifying police records to help his son escape a jail sentence and in 2002, he became the highest-ranking law enforcement official in Suffolk County history to be convicted of a crime. He avoided prison time and was sentenced to conditional discharge.
Stephen Scaring, the special prosecutor who led the investigation into Gallagher, said at the time that he found no evidence that Perini or anyone from the DA's narcotics bureau improperly helped Gallagher.
Scaring also said that no one from the Suffolk District Attorney's Office has been implicated by any of the witnesses who testified before the special grand jury. Initially, Scaring had been trying to determine whether any members of the district attorney's narcotics bureau had helped Gallagher. "We have found no evidence to indicate that," Scaring said yesterday.
Perini said in a recent interview that he had no idea the Gallagher letter was false. The officer who gave him the letter was “a great cop,” he said.
Should I have known? I don’t know how I could have known. Before I came out here we didn’t have a system in place. … I set up a system where I had to get a boss’ approval, the sergeant’s approval. … Now, once this happens, you change your system. But I just didn’t see it coming, you can fault me for that but, again … corrupt people can always manipulate the system.
The use of Kevin Eason as a narcotics informant ... constitutes evidence of both misconduct and a failure of supervision in narcotics investigations and prosecutions.
Kevin Eason was a 17-year old high school junior working as an informant for Suffolk narcotics detectives in 1984. He introduced detectives to street-level cocaine dealers, leading to 140 purchases of cocaine in Wyandanch and North Amityville and a major drug raid in which 23 people were arrested. Eason later testified for the prosecution at five narcotics trials.
The SIC report accused the DA’s office (though not anybody by name) of secretly moving Eason out of state in an effort to keep him from speaking with the commission.
When Eason appeared before the SIC, he testified that detectives had pressured him to make false identifications and give false testimony at narcotics trials.
I was young and I said to myself, 'They want me to lie.' And that's what I did for them.
Less than two weeks later, Eason recanted his testimony. He said he was lying when he had testified that he lied.
I'm sorry I put Officers Warren Savage and Ellen Donnelly through this headache. But I know that they're two understanding people and if they would have received threats like I did, they would have done the same thing.
The SIC was less concerned with whether Eason lied than with the fact that Perini and police officers kept using such an unreliable informant.
Two police officers, Det. Lt. Richard Franzese and Sgt. James Maher, said they had warned Perini that Eason’s credibility was questionable. Franzese testified he told Perini that about 30 cases involving Eason had to be dismissed “because they had not been investigated or documented thoroughly or completely.”
In a recent interview, Perini said that he never relied solely on Eason or any other informant for identifying drug dealers. An informant might provide the introduction, but cops always made the buys.
Eason, I don’t even know where that came from. … The SIC, when they wrote that in the report, they didn’t ask me one question about Eason. … We didn’t know he was as unreliable as they said.
Perini added that when he started the narcotics bureau, he set up a careful process for handling informants.
I set up a system that I thought would work. I don’t think you can set up a system that is foolproof against people that want to cheat or who are corrupt. Again, I am not going to apologize for the way I handled narcotics. And did we make changes afterwards? Absolutely.
... since the integrity of the entire County Police Department was at risk, at a bare minimum the District Attorney's office, or a special prosecutor appointed by that office, should have completed an exhaustive review and investigation ...
During a 1987 investigation by Suffolk County’s Public Safety Committee, lawmakers aired prior allegations of an illegal kickback scheme involving Suffolk cops, an assistant district attorney and a prominent private law firm.
Police Officer Theodore Adamchak testified that after a DWI case in 1982, prosecutor David Woycik gave him a business card with Woycik’s name and the address and phone number of a local law firm. Woycik told the officer that if he referred anyone arrested to him, Woycik would then refer the person to the law firm. Adamchak said the payment for each referral would be $100. Suffolk Police Officer William Brown also reported to investigators that Woycik had approached him with a similar proposal.
The contact info on the business card: The law office of Sullivan and Spota.
Two years after investigating the law firm’s role in the alleged kickback scheme, O’Rourke left the DA’s office, sublet office space from Sullivan and Spota and then joined the firm as a partner.
O’Rourke was combative and sarcastic during his 1987 testimony at the legislative hearings and suggested the committee’s investigation was politically motivated.
In the 1989 report, the SIC’s appraisal of the alleged kickback scheme was that Woycik’s actions were “reprehensible, unethical and possibly criminal.”
Woycik said in an interview Thursday that he was “totally exonerated” after the SIC reported its findings to the grievance committee, which investigates allegations of misconduct against attorneys.
This happened 23 years ago, and it was totally untrue.
In an interview Tuesday, Spota said allegations that his law firm bribed police officers with Woycik’s assistance were “absolutely” false.
I didn’t even know David Woycik. … I never had anything to do with that. And they put that in there. … I didn’t know Woycik. I had nothing to do with this kid.
The Suffolk County Police Department and District Attorney's Office engaged in and permitted improper practices to occur in homicide prosecutions, including perjury, as well as grossly deficient investigative and management practices.
The last time Spota was publicly linked to the SIC report was in 2001, when he was the challenger for the DA’s office against incumbent James Catterson.
Catterson charged that Spota had been part of a “good old boys” network in the district attorney’s office that looked the other way when police committed perjury or coerced confessions in homicide cases. Catterson cited the SIC report and said Spota had been implicated in it.
Spota responded that the cases came four years after he left the district attorney's office. "I never prosecuted any one of them," he said.
The SIC report also cited a 1979 investigation by The National Law Review that “contained allegations of widespread use of force by members of the Suffolk County Police Department Homicide Division in order to coerce confessions in murder cases.”
In almost all of the instances of alleged brutality examined by The National Law Journal, the violence was said to occur during the questioning of suspects in major crimes. Most frequently cited were members of the 55-man homicide unit. ... And where such situations occur ... there is often a tendency by prosecutors to look the other way. ... Such methods are indisputably illegal. Why, then, have prosecutors permitted them to continue?
A subsequent Suffolk County Bar Association report, published in 1980, concluded there was a “serious problem with respect to police brutality” and that the DA’s office was not “an adequate check against police brutality.”
... it would be a strong deterrent to such incidents [of misconduct] if the police are made aware that Assistant District Attorneys will not countenance police misconduct and that such matters will be thoroughly investigated and prosecuted. If this is not made a priority, and in Suffolk County the indication is that it is not, it will be the natural tendency of the Assistant District Attorney to be less than zealous in pursuing matters of police misconduct and the situation will worsen.
A few of those cases were overturned while Spota was the major offense bureau chief, but he only prosecuted one of the cases, in which Peter Bartolomeo fatally shot John McLaughlin in Deer Park. Spota won the case, but an appellate court reversed the conviction because Suffolk police knew Bartolomeo had an attorney but did not contact him before gaining the confession. That decision was controversial and, subsequent to the SIC’s report, it was reversed by a higher court, affirming Spota’s initial prosecution.
Spota acknowledged Tuesday that there was once an overreliance on confessions by Suffolk law enforcement. But he disputed the characterization in the various investigations that there were widespread abuses involving brutality, poor record keeping and particularly any misconduct that might cause a miscarriage of justice.
Coerced confessions? You think that we want to put a person who didn’t commit a crime in jail? That would be the worst thing that would ever happen.
The central criticisms concern obtaining and using an unreliable confession, and engaging in faulty and improper police and prosecutorial action...
In the most direct tie to Spota’s handling of homicide prosecutions, the SIC included a section on "The Pius Cases," stemming from the April 1979 murder of 13-year old John Pius. It is arguably Spota’s most famous case.
As bureau chief, Spota had oversight over all the cases, but he personally prosecuted and won convictions against Peter and Michael Quartararo, two of the four teenage boys charged with killing Pius. Spota initially handled the case against one of the other boys, Robert Brensic, but the case ended in a mistrial when a detective on the stand improperly revealed information about the other defendants. Another prosecutor retried what was essentially the same case, with Spota’s assistance.
At the time of the SIC’s report, three of the four defendants had had their convictions overturned on appeal, including Brensic and Michael Quartararo. Among the issues was Peter Quartararo’s taped confession, which he later recanted. Defense attorneys argued that it had been obtained when the 15-year old's parents weren’t present and that it had been improperly entered into evidence against the other defendants. The report noted that “the opinions in the reversals highlight some of the systemic problems in Suffolk homicide prosecutions.”
The National Law Review investigation, which was published about a month after the Pius murder, predicted that there would be problems with the prosecution.
... the homicide squad allegedly pulled in off the street and questioned several area teenagers for long hours while the youth’s parents frantically telephoned around town to learn of their children’s whereabouts.
There is a growing concensus (sic) among local defense attorneys and prosecutors that the rights of the youths may have been so seriously compromised that the chances of successful prosecution have been jeopardized.
The Pius cases were finally resolved in 2003 – after a total of eight trials and five successful appeals – when Thomas Ryan pleaded guilty to second-degree attempted manslaughter. Peter Quartararo, whose murder conviction was reversed in 1989, was never retried. Peter’s brother Michael was sentenced to 9 years to life, but only had to spend two nights a week at a minimum security prison with the rest of the time served on a work release program.
Brensic pleaded guilty to a reduced charge in 1988 and received what the SIC considered a “highly favorable” deal. The SIC criticized DA Henry and Timothy Mazzei, the ADA who prosecuted Brensic after Spota, for a “misguided and improper” attempt to use the plea to try to “overcome the charges of police and prosecutorial improprieties” in the various Pius cases.
Mazzei, who is now a Councilman for the Town of Brookhaven, called the SIC’s opinion of the Brensic plea deal “absolutely ridiculous.” Mazzei said Brensic had refused the same plea deal 10 years earlier, and a judge finally convinced him to accept it.
Spota defended his handling of the Pius cases in an interview Tuesday.
The initial confession that Peter Quartararo gave, which is a tape recorded confession, it’s all on tape and there were things in there for instance nobody knew. … They (the SIC) never, never, never once asked one person anything about the Pius case. Nothing. Zero. When I got the transcript I was shocked to see that it was in there.
Both Perini and Spota still bristle over the allegations raised in the SIC report.
Perini, however, considers his testimony before the commission a “career day.” Three black-and-white pictures of him testifying hang on the wall of his Hauppague office.
Perini said the experience taught him that he needed to have complete control over investigations involving police misconduct.
“You can’t be afraid to do corrupt cops, no matter what the pain," he said. "You have to do them, because when you let a corrupt cop walk away you destroy the entire fabric of the system. And when the people don’t believe us, we will start losing cases."
Spota, who represented numerous officers during the public hearings before the SIC, blamed his inclusion in the report on his adversarial relationship with the commission’s chairman, David Trager.
“I think that it was retribution on the part of the SIC because I had represented many of the police officers, and aggressively represented them,” Spota said. “There was no question that there was a great deal of animosity between myself and the chairman, Trager.”
Spota did not elaborate on why Suffolk County lawmakers noted in their 1987 investigation that there should have been a more thorough investigation into “a potentially serious corruption case involving an alleged kick-back scheme between an Assistant District Attorney, police officers from the County Police Department, and a prominent criminal defense law firm in Suffolk County comprised of former high ranking members of the Suffolk County District Attorney's Office.”
Spota rejected any suggestion that he had a shared history with Perini, saying his own involvement in the inquiries were not equivalent to Perini’s.
“If you compare what happened with Perini and you want to write about it, that’s your choice, not mine,” Spota said. “I would prefer that you didn’t do any of it, but he’s got 100 pages with specific recommendations. Mine, there are no recommendations about me.”