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Hilltown Archives The Altamont Enterprise, August 27, 2009
Jury still out: Fate of former judge, Spargo, rests on lawyers’ La Canard luncheon
By Zach Simeone
ALBANY Thomas Spargo, a Berne resident and former New York State Supreme Court justice, is on trial this week for attempting to bribe and extort Bruce Blatchly, an Ulster County attorney in 2003.
Spargo did not testify this week at the hearing before a jury in the United States District Court in Albany, but his attorney, E. Stewart Jones, concluded his case with a flourish.
Quoting former United States judge and judicial philosopher Learned Hand, Jones said, “Our procedure has always been haunted by the ghost of the innocent man convicted.”
Then, laying a hand on Spargo’s shoulder, and on the brink of tears, he said to the jury, “Tom Spargo entrusts his life and his liberty to your hands.”
After a three-day trial, the jury deliberated for more than two hours Wednesday, but retired before reaching a verdict.
Blatchly testified this week, as did a number of attorneys who joined Spargo for a luncheon at La Canard restaurant in Kingston in December of 2003. The prosecution alleged that a friend of Spargo solicited money on Spargo’s behalf for a legal defense fund, created to help pay off his legal bills for a federal lawsuit. Those solicited were attorneys with cases pending before Judge Spargo at the time, the prosecution said.
The roots of Spargo’s case reach back to 1999, when he was running for town justice as a Republican in Berne. The New York State Commission on Judicial Conduct charged that, during this time, he handed out $5 gift certificates to voters and, after identifying himself as a candidate for town justice, bought a round of drinks at a bar.
In addition, the commission charged, he handed out coupons for doughnuts, coffee, and gasoline; gave out half-gallons of apple cider and doughnuts at the town dump; and purchased and delivered pizza for Berne-Knox-Westerlo teachers, town highway department workers, and workers at the school bus garage. While judges are allowed to hand out promotional material, the commission said, they cannot distribute things of value to voters.
Spargo won the election.
While serving as town justice, the commission charged, Spargo heard criminal cases prosecuted by the Albany County District Attorney’s Office, without disclosing to the defense that he had rendered legal services to Paul Clyne’s campaign for district attorney, or that the Clyne campaign committee owed Spargo $10,000 for legal services.
Then, in May of 2001, the commission said that Spargo, calling himself a candidate for the Supreme Court, talked at a fund-raiser in Rochester about his work in the Florida recount on behalf of the George W. Bush presidential campaign. The commission said that this “exceeded the boundaries of permissible conduct.”
The commission filed complaints against Spargo in 2002 for these charges. Spargo argued that his First Amendment rights were being violated, but eventually lost the case.
To pay for the legal costs associated with these charges, the commission said, Spargo approved the creation of the Thomas J. Spargo Legal Expense Trust. In 2003, the commission charged, Spargo asked, through friends, for contributions to this trust from lawyers with cases before him.
On Dec. 11, 2003, witnesses said, Spargo was joined by attorneys from three of the most successful law firms in Ulster County attorneys with cases pending before Spargo for a luncheon at La Canard, a restaurant in Kingston. It was at this luncheon that Sanford Rosenblum, a friend of Spargo, solicited Blatchly and other attorneys in the amount of $10,000.
Months before the luncheon at La Canard, Spargo had signed an order that awarded $1 million in legal fees to the Blatchly and Simonson law firm, after an insurance settlement in the case of a motorcycle crash, prosecutors said.
In his testimony this Monday, Blatchly said that, in December of 2003, Spargo called him to inform him that he was being reassigned to Ulster County, and that Spargo’s friend, Surrogate Judge Catheryn Doyle, would likely be presiding over Blatchly’s own divorce.
Blatchly said he felt threatened, and that Spargo said it was looking like a “nice Christmas” for him.
That same month, Spargo invited Blatchly and attorneys Alfred Mainetti, Joseph O’Connor, Maureen Keegan, and Eli Basch to the luncheon at La Canard, along with two of his friends: attorney Sanford Rosenblum, and Doyle. The purpose of the luncheon, the attorneys were told, was to “meet his people.”
Blatchly said that, as he was preparing to leave the luncheon, Rosenblum approached him, saying that “we” meaning he and Spargo were looking for $10,000. This led Blatchly to file a complaint with the state’s Commission on Judicial Conduct.
Attorneys at lunch
According to Keegan’s 2005 testimony, she recalled Basch and Spargo discussing Spargo’s federal litigations at the luncheon, but the subject of raising funds for Spargo did not come up until Spargo had left; all subsequent testimonies corroborated the statement that Spargo had gone from the restaurant before any fund-raising was discussed. Only Keegan, O’Connor, and Basch were left when Rosenblum asked for a contribution, Keegan said. She added that she never contributed to the legal expense fund.
It was revealed during Mainetti’s testimony that a $346,130 contingency fee was paid to Mainetti’s firm for a 2003 case over which Spargo presided, and Spargo therefore knew that the money for a donation was there.
While Mainetti left the restaurant before any fund-raising was discussed, his partner at the law firm, Joseph O’Connor, filled him in afterwards. Questioning the propriety of making such a donation, Mainetti and O’Connor’s firm declined to contribute.
After Mainetti left the stand, a transcript of Rosenblum’s testimony was read aloud, in which Rosenblum stated that, while he attended the luncheon, he was not there to eat, as he does not eat at non-kosher restaurants.
On why he asked Blatchly for a monetary contribution, Rosenblum said it was “utterly spontaneous,” adding that he believes people feel complimented in thinking that someone thinks they can afford to make a $10,000 donation.
On why he asked others for contributions, but did not make any himself, Rosenblum said that his partners did not wish to make donations, and that they do things “all or nothing” at his law firm.
Additionally, Rosenblum said that he did not, in any way, communicate to Spargo that he would be asking those present at the luncheon for donations, and never discussed with Judge Doyle the idea of a legal defense fund, adding that Spargo had never asked him to put together such a fund, or do any fund-raising of any kind. Spargo had no knowledge that Rosenblum had solicited these attorneys at the luncheon, and Rosenblum had no intentions of solicitation going into the luncheon, he said.
Jones, Spargo’s attorney, had suggested previously that Spargo was raising money for a judicial campaign, but Eli Basch, of Basch and Keegan L.L.P., had little question that he was being solicited for Spargo’s legal expenses.
When Basch took the stand Tuesday, he began by saying that he knew Spargo only professionally, and had cases pending before Spargo in November and December of 2003.
As Keegan said in her testimony, Basch recalled discussing Spargo’s federal lawsuit with Spargo at the luncheon. But Basch was suspicious of the purpose of the luncheon.
“I got the impression that it was for Sandy Rosenblum to solicit money for Spargo’s defense,” Basch said.
Next on the stand was David Kunz, Spargo’s attorney during his federal litigations, and a friend of Spargo for nearly 40 years.
The court was presented a series of invoices and past-due notices for payments to Kunz for Spargo’s legal defense, revealing that Spargo still owes Kunz more than $112,000. Kunz said that he had decided not to seek payment for the remaining unpaid services.
In his closing argument, prosecuting attorney Kendall Day said Spargo had lied about the events discussed in this case.
Spargo, Day said, had previously denied that anything of a legal nature was discussed at the luncheon at La Canard.
“There was no scholastic study or academic discussion about anything legal,” Day quoted from Spargo, though every witness from the luncheon said otherwise.
Also suspicious, Day said, was senior court clerk Beth Cornell’s statement that she was asked to leave the room during a conversation Spargo was having with Blatchly a conversation about a case that had ended over a month ago. Spargo later denied that he had asked Cornell to leave the room. Why, Day asked, would Spargo ask a senior court clerk to leave the room during a conversation about an old case, and then deny asking her to leave?
As Day took his seat, Jones’s closing argument echoed throughout the courtroom, as he questioned why Judge Catheryn Doyle was not called to the witness stand. Reasonable doubt, he said, lies in the absence of a witness.
“They’re trying to condemn Tom Spargo for what Sandy Rosenblum did,” Jones said later, adding, “Every single witness said there was absolutely no discussion…no reference at all to a contribution,” until after Spargo left La Canard restaurant.
“A lawyer soliciting for a judge for a legal defense fund is OK,” he said, as long as the judge does not know about it.
Jones added that it is of no importance whether or not Spargo remembers asking Beth Cornell to leave the room during his conversation with Blatchly.
“She doesn’t remember anything else about the day,” Jones said of Cornell.
The jury will resume deliberations this morning, Thursday.