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Thomas Spota

From left, Bill Ferris, Tim Sini and Ray Perini are currently the three known candidates for Suffolk County district attorney. Photo on left from Ferris; file photo center; photo on right from Perini

Update: Bill Ferris dropped out of the race in July, there will be no primary to select a Republican candidate Sept. 12.

On the heels of Suffolk County District Attorney Tom Spota’s (D) decision to forgo a run at a fifth term this November, two Republicans and a Democrat, each longtime law enforcers, so far are publicly vying for the county’s top prosecutor job.

Spota, who assumed office in 2001, made his official announcement May 12, about a year after County Executive Steve Bellone (D) and several legislators called on him to resign from his position after playing a role in the promotion of former Suffolk County Chief of Police James Burke, who pleaded guilty in February 2016 to charges of a civil rights violation and conspiracy to obstruct justice.

“I want to be the next DA because I can make this county safe again.”

— Ray Perini

Accused of taking part in a police cover-up, which spurred on a federal investigation, Spota has been under scrutiny from both sides of the aisle for the last year. Spota shed light on his decision in an emailed statement through spokesman Robert Clifford.

“Be assured, this is one of the most difficult decisions I’ve ever made and my final decision was only made recently,” he said. “The deciding factor though, is that life is too short (especially at my age) and it’s time to spend quality time with my wife, children and grandchildren (with 2 more on the way!).”

With Spota out of the race, the torch will be passed on to a newcomer, of which there are three known contenders eyeing the seat — Ray Perini (R), former chief and founder of the Suffolk County District Attorney’s Narcotics Bureau; Bill Ferris (R), a Vietnam veteran and former assistant district attorney; and Tim Sini (D), current Suffolk County police commissioner —  according to the Suffolk County Board of Elections. Each of them, as well as any others who decide to throw their hat in the ring, are expected to file petitions between July 10 and July 13.

Perini, 69, a Huntington resident, who entered the race in January, said he’s been training his entire career to be district attorney and wants to “take politics out of the DA’s office.”

“At this point in my career, I don’t want anything else,” Perini said. “I don’t want to be county executive, I don’t want to be governor, I don’t want to be judge … I want to be the next DA because I can make this county safe again.”

A highly experienced criminal lawyer with an active practice in Islandia, Perini has 43 years of experience in the criminal justice system, 17 of which were spent as a prosecutor bouncing from Brooklyn to Suffolk County, where he started the Narcotics Bureau in 1976.

In 1989, he went on to work with federal and state police agencies, including Suffolk County Police, the Drug Enforcement Administration, the FBI and drug task forces. He served as co-chair of the Suffolk County Criminal Bar Association’s criminal law committee and is a past president of the Suffolk County Criminal Bar Association.

“There is nothing I haven’t done in the criminal justice system,” Perini said. His major focuses if elected, he said, are gang violence and drug overdoses. “As a united front, working with the federal government, DEA, FBI and cops on the street, collectively, we can win this war [against drugs]. We need experience, this is what I’ve done, this is what I can do. All I care about is getting the job done.”

Perini ran unsuccessfully against Spota four years ago after the incumbent was cross-endorsed on all four party lines, for which Perini attacked Spota for not giving voters a choice at the polls.

“I wouldn’t accept a cross-endorsement,” the father of two said. “I want the voters to pick.”

“I want to restore the integrity and professionalism to the office, as well as faith in the judicial system and also in law enforcement.”

— Bill Ferris

Ferris, 70, a former Navy captain in the Vietnam war and Fordham Law School graduate from Southold, announced recently his intention to run against Perini, the choice of the Republican Party for the September primary.

“I want to restore the integrity and professionalism to the office, as well as faith in the judicial system and also in law enforcement,” Ferris, who served as prosecutor for 23 years under former Suffolk District Attorney Patrick Henry starting in 1978, said. “My background is clear and clean. I was in that office for 23 years and handled homicide, vehicular homicide, served on the Katie Beers [kidnapping] matter, tried a political corruption case against county sheriff Patrick Mahoney, served as president of the Suffolk County Bar Association recently, have taught young lawyers ethics and served on the Grievance Committee for Nassau and Suffolk for eight years.”

He said anyone who runs for the DA position has to have a clean record of integrity, accountability and professionalism, all of which the father of two said he has.

Among his biggest priority if elected, he said, is getting a handle on the gang situation that has left Suffolk residents feeling unsafe.

“I’ll protect the citizens, fight the gangs and give us back our good name,” Ferris said in a statement. “While I was in the DA office, we did have a gang unit, which was discounted under Mr. Spota … The DA’s office is in a critical position to bring in federal agency, state, and local police to put together a master plan to both investigate and prosecute gang members. Parents are afraid on a daily basis to send their kids to school and that should not happen in Suffolk County.”

Sini, 36, the youngest commissioner in the history of Suffolk County, announced his official run for the job on the same day Spota made his announcement, despite a claim in front of the county legislature in February 2016 before he was confirmed that he had no intentions of running for district attorney.

“[Tim Sini] stepped up to the plate and I think that’s exactly what we need.”

— David Kelley

“I think that when he said that he wouldn’t run, he meant what he said,” said David Kelley, former U.S. attorney for the Southern District of New York and chairman of Sini’s campaign. “Since then, a couple things have happened. Having the insight he does on the needs of the DA’s office and how the shape it’s in is so bad and such a disservice to the county, he could see that firsthand from his vantage point as commissioner from taking on difficult cases like MS-13, recognizing this office needs somebody who can be really good … he stepped up to the plate and I think that’s exactly what we need.”

Sini, who did not return multiple requests for comment through Kelley, has taken on the county’s gang violence and drug problem head-on in his short time in his position. He recently spoke before the U.S. Senate to outline the departments initiatives in tackling the county’s gang problem.

“If you take his commitments to public service and his professionalism, and put it together, he, by far, surpasses any of the other candidates and I think he’s exactly what the county needs,” Kelley said. “He’s a professional prosecutor, he’s spent a good part of his career in the U.S. Attorney’s office in Manhattan, he’s clerked for a federal judge, he’s a highly skilled and highly trained lawyer and prosecutor, and he also knows the ins and outs of the criminal justice system in Suffolk County.”

A violent dispute between two homeless men left one with a gunshot wound, and the other in court.

Alain Jean mugshot from SCPD
Alain Jean mugshot from SCPD

Alain Jean, 22, charged with shooting a homeless man in Port Jefferson Station on June 11, pleaded not guilty to charges of assault and criminal possession of a weapon when he was arraigned at Suffolk County District Court in Riverhead on Tuesday, according to his attorney and Suffolk County District Attorney Thomas Spota.

“He vehemently denies these allegations,” Jean’s Hauppauge-based attorney Donald Mates said in a phone interview Tuesday. “He can’t wait to get his story out there to explain what really happened.”

Jean’s bail was set at $500,000 cash or $1 million bond, according to a spokesman for Spota. Mates said his client wasn’t able to make bail as of Tuesday.

According to the Suffolk County Police Department, Jean shot the 22-year-old victim multiple times shortly after 12:30 p.m. on Union Street, which is between Hallock Avenue and Route 25A, and the Long Island Rail Road tracks in Port Jefferson Station.

The victim was treated for serious injuries at Stony Brook University Hospital. A spokesman for Spota said the weapon used in the shooting was a .22 caliber revolver.

Jean’s next court date is July 26.

Legislators not letting Bellone off hook

Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone is searching for ways to improve the county's financial outlook. File photo by Alex Petroski

A high stakes political finger pointing battle is ramping up in Suffolk County.

Top Suffolk County officials have been left to answer for the promotion of former Chief of Police James Burke, who in February pleaded guilty to charges of a civil rights violation and conspiracy to obstruct justice, which occurred following the arrest of Smithtown man Christopher Loeb in 2012.

On Tuesday Legislator Rob Trotta (R-Fort Salonga) held a press conference at the Suffolk County Legislature in Riverhead where he and fellow legislators, including Tom Cilmi (R-Bay Shore) and Kevin McCaffrey (R-Lindenhurst), called for both County Executive Steve Bellone and District Attorney Tom Spota to resign from their positions.

On Thursday, Bellone joined the list of people including the legislators and Suffolk County Sheriff Vincent DeMarco calling for Spota to resign.

“For refusing to cooperate and work with federal law enforcement to prosecute crime in this county, for refusing and blocking federal law enforcement who were working on the Gilgo Beach serial murder case, for allowing violent criminals to go free to protect political friends, for lying about Jim Burke and conspiring to conceal his past…” Bellone said Thursday afternoon on the steps of Spota’s Hauppauge office. “Tom Spota, you must resign from this office so that we can begin the process of reforming this place governmentally and politically in a way that we can ensure this doesn’t happen again. If you fail to do so, I will call on the governor to exercise his authority under the constitution to remove you from this office.”

Trotta arrived while Bellone addressed the media, and interjected that reporters were speaking with a “co-conspirator.” Trotta reiterated his stance on Thursday that Bellone is as much a part of the political corruption problem in the county as Spota for his role in promoting Burke, and standing by him despite evidence of Burke’s troubled past.

“I have never said that I have never made mistakes in my public career,” Bellone said. “I’ve made many mistakes. But they have never, ever been with ill intent and I’ve learned from my mistakes and I don’t repeat them. When I promoted Jim Burke I consulted District Attorney Tom Spota. When I fired Jim Burke I did not consult Tom Spota.”

Bellone said he promoted Burke not because of recommendations from Spota or others, but because he was a “charismatic” and “impressive” person who made a memorable presentation.

Bellone handed a letter calling for Spota’s resignation to one of his employees inside the office, and Spota later met the media to respond Thursday.

“It’s a very, very difficult day for me,” Spota said in a video of that press conference. “He has delivered to me a letter asking for my resignation. I have absolutely no reason why I should resign, or should I be removed from office.”

Spota fired back at Bellone, suggesting his motivation was a “personal vendetta” against Spota for investigating and prosecuting people Bellone was close to.

On Tuesday, Bellone responded to Trotta, Cilmi and McCaffrey’s calls for his resignation through an email from a spokeswoman.

“Rob Trotta and Tom Cilmi are partisan politicians who just don’t get it,” the statement said. “This is not a partisan issue, this is about sweeping out a culture of abuse and corruption in the district attorney’s office.  I regret that I trusted the word of the district attorney regarding Jim Burke, and I have learned from that error in judgment.”

Trotta made it clear following Bellone’s comments that the county executive should not be let off the hook.

“It was an Academy Award winning performance,” Trotta said of Bellone’s press conference. “Forty-eight hours ago we were partisan, and we were political hacks. Now all of the sudden he responds to a Newsday article, he sees what’s going on and he tries to jump in front of it. It’s ridiculously absurd…He’s a total, unadulterated liar.”

James Murphy mugshot from the DA's office

A Huntington man who admitted to huffing an aerosol cleaner before getting behind the wheel on New Year’s eve in 2013 and broadsiding a 63-year-old Commack woman’s car, killing her, was sentenced to four to 12 years in prison on Friday, according to the Suffolk County DA’s office.

State Supreme Court Justice John Collins sentenced James Murphy, 20, in Riverhead this morning after what DA spokesman Bob Clifford described in an email as an emotional courtroom scene. Family members of victim Herta Palma attended the sentencing.

Murphy pleaded guilty on Feb. 26 to second-degree manslaughter, second-degree reckless endangerment, reckless driving and leaving the scene of a fatal accident. He was remanded to the county jail following his February plea.

On the day of the fatal crash, Murphy was driving a Chevy Blazer north on Commack Road when he sideswiped one car and ran a red light at the intersection with Hauppauge Road, according to a Thursday statement from the DA’s office. Murphy’s SUV broadsided the Hyundai sedan Palma was driving. Palma died soon after at Huntington Hospital.

District Attorney Thomas Spota said Murphy told cops at the scene of the crash in 2013, “I was driving the white Blazer. I’m not going to lie to you officer. I just inhaled a can of Dust Off and threw it in the back of my truck.”

He also told officers he took Xanax and smoked hash a couple of days earlier.

Clifford said Murphy told the court today that he made “bad choices.”

Murphy’s attorney didn’t immediately return a call seeking comment on Friday afternoon.

According to Clifford, Palma’s son, Joe Palma Jr., spoke to the court as well, saying, “As a family we have already been given our sentence. A life sentence of pain and grief from the loss of a mother taken much too soon for no good reason.

“All of our lives have been forever altered. We will never be the same.”

Clifford said Herta Palma’s daughter-in-law, Mary, also spoke, saying that the victim had visited her Commack home that afternoon, reminding the family to be safe on New Year’s Eve. Palma was staying home on New Year’s Eve because she lost a friend years ago in a drunk-driving crash.

“We actually spoke of it, obviously not knowing as she drove away that her life was going to be taken within nine minutes of her leaving my home,” she said, according to Clifford. “As she was pulling away, she was waving with her big smile at me, blowing kisses. … I hold on to that memory every day.”

In his statement, Spota called on the New York State Legislature to include intoxicative inhalants to current statutes that make driving under the influence of a drug illegal.

“It is well-established science that people who abuse inhalants experience intoxication, muscle spasms, a loss of coordination, hallucinations and impaired judgment — and it is also a fact that for many teenagers, inhalants provide a cheap and accessible alternative to alcohol,” he said. “It is time New York State treats inhalants as intoxicating substances so prosecutors can charge offenders with driving while impaired by drugs in the first degree.”

Highway Superintendent Glenn Jorgensen patches a pothole in the Town of Smithtown as another highway department staffer looks on. File photo by Rachel Shapiro

Smithtown Highway Superintendent Glenn Jorgensen pleaded not guilty Wednesday to felony charges accusing him of tampering with public records for a town paving project, Suffolk County District Attorney Thomas Spota said.

Jorgensen, 63, of St. James, was directed to appear in First District Court in Central Islip for his arraignment, where he faced several charges, including tampering with public records, falsifying business records, filing false records, official misconduct and grand larceny, relating to incidents dating back to Nov. 18, 2014.

The district attorney alleged that Jorgensen directed a highway foreman to alter road construction reports to conceal that he had approved a contractor, Suffolk Asphalt Corporation of Selden, to pave at least eight Smithtown streets in freezing temperatures in November. The altered records misrepresented the weather conditions during the repaving work, Spota said.

Jorgensen’s misdemeanor grand larceny charge also accused him of stealing a public work order for the improper repaving and taking the official document home. District attorney detectives found the records in Jorgensen’s Hope Place residence, under his bed, Spota said.

“State department of transportation construction standards dictate asphalt must not be applied to a road surface in freezing temperatures and, in fact, the town’s own engineer has said repaving in freezing weather would result in the asphalt falling apart,” Spota said. “The repaving of a residential street doesn’t happen that often and when it does, residents are paying for a job done correctly, not a faulty repaving that will soon need pothole repair work.”

Both Jorgensen and Anthony M. La Pinta, a Hauppauge-based attorney representing him, did not return calls seeking comment.

Jorgensen has authority over 142 employees with a $30 million annual operating budget to pay for snow removal and the paving, drainage and maintenance of roughly 450 miles of roads and curbs in the town. He was first elected in 2010 to serve as superintendent, but has worked in the department for 37 years in various capacities, including as a foreman. He left retirement in 2009 when he was elected superintendent and was re-elected in 2013.

Smithtown Supervisor Patrick Vecchio declined to comment on the district attorney’s charges against the highway superintendent.