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Hilltown Archives The Altamont Enterprise, December 24, 2009
Spargo sentencing spurs sympathy in Berne
By Zach Simeone
BERNE Former Supreme Court judge Thomas Spargo appeared unfazed Monday when he was sentenced to 27 months in prison. He said afterward that he thought the judge’s decision was fair.
The once Berne town judge was found guilty in August of extortion and bribery for orchestrating a plan to solicit funds from lawyers with cases before him in order to pay his own legal bills. He will not appeal.
Spargo’s downfall began in 1999 with the race for town justice in Berne, where Spargo lives. A Republican, he won the race in a town dominated by Democrats. He was later accused of judicial misconduct by the state’s Commission on Judicial Conduct for, among other things, “offering items of value to induce voters to vote for him.” His mounting legal defense fees are what prompted him to lean on lawyers for funds.
His opponent in that race, now Councilman Peter Vance, said this week he still considers Spargo a neighbor like any other.
“What’s past is past,” Vance told The Enterprise. “He is a neighbor, and, if he was in a ditch, I’d pull him out, and I’d like to think he’d do the same for me…Here’s a very bright, intelligent man, and it’s just sad. I feel bad for his family, and I feel bad for him,” Vance said.
Philip Stevens, former chairman of Berne’s GOP, said that Spargo’s win in 1999 was a great victory for the Republican Party.
“When you do this job, you get to talk to people and really pick their brains,” Stevens said of being the town’s Republican chairman. “Tom was someone who really represented both parties.”
Spargo’s conviction, and the events in the years leading up to it, came as a surprise, Stevens said.
“I know Tom very well,” said Stevens. “Nice person, really. He’s done some good work…His children are very nice; his wife is very nice.”
After Spargo’s 1999 victory in Berne, the commission said that, while campaigning, Spargo handed out coupons for doughnuts, coffee, and gasoline; purchased rounds of drinks at a local bar; gave out half-gallons of cider and doughnuts at the town dump; and purchased and delivered pizza for Berne-Knox-Westerlo teachers and town highway workers. The total value of these items, the commission said, was $2,000.
A nationally known expert on election law, Spargo was also charged by the commission with engaging in “prohibited activity,” the reason being that, in November of 2000, he attended the governmental sessions for the recount of presidential votes in Florida, as an observer for the Republican Party.
The commission stated that Spargo “participated in a loud and obstructive demonstration against the recount process outside the office of the Miami-Dade County Board of Elections” with “the aim of disrupting the process.”
“It was unquestionably historic,” Spargo told The Enterprise upon his return. “I was the chief lawyer on the ground.”
He unsuccessfully challenged the commission in federal court, arguing its allegation had to do with the exercise of his First Amendment liberties.
In 2006, Spargo, who had since been elected a judge in the Supreme Court the lowest rung in the state’s three-tiered system lost his challenge on appeal and was removed from the bench.
But Stevens does not believe that Spargo’s actions, as described by the commission, affected the 1999 race for town justice.
“And I don’t have any knowledge that Tom actually did any of those things,” Stevens said. “It’s all hearsay till you see it.”
Nonetheless, Stevens said that 27 months’ imprisonment is a fair sentence.
In the days leading up to Spargo’s conviction in August, a number of attorneys, who joined Spargo for a luncheon at La Canard restaurant in Kingston in December of 2003, testified on their recollections of the luncheon. The prosecution alleged that attorney Sanford Rosenblum, a friend of Spargo, solicited money on Spargo’s behalf for a legal defense fund, created to help pay off Spargo’s legal bills from the federal lawsuit. Upon conviction, Spargo was stripped of his license to practice law.
[For full coverage of Spargo’s trial in August, go to www.altamontenterprise.com, and look in Hilltown archives for Aug. 27 and Sept. 3, 2009.]
As ordered Monday by United States District Court Judge Gary Sharpe, Spargo will be locked up in the closest prison to the city of Albany, followed by a supervisory period of two years.
Before Judge Sharpe decided on Spargo’s sentence, Spargo’s lawyer, E. Stewart Jones, made a final attempt at convincing the judge that his client’s actions were not premeditated, but to no avail.
To the contrary, Attorney Richard Pilger of the United States Department of Justice reminded Judge Sharpe, “The defendant literally had to direct Mr. Rosenblum to that lunch because he got lost on the way.”
The judge went on to say that he disagreed with the government’s opinion that others at the fateful luncheon should also be charged as criminals.
“There’s no question that this crime was instituted by Mr. Spargo,” Judge Sharpe told Pilger. “I challenge the government’s representation of co-conspirators.”
Albany County Surrogate Judge Catheryn Doyle, for example, was at the 2003 luncheon; other than her presence at the restaurant, there is no evidence of her participation in Spargo’s plot, Sharpe said.
Pilger asked that Sharpe consider sentencing Spargo to 33 months in prison; according to advisory federal guidelines, the sentence could have reached 41 months.
“What we’re talking about today is a judge,” Pilger said. A judge of Spargo’s former standing “can influence proceedings just by the tone of his voice…The most power that an individual encounters in government is in a trial court,” he said.
Further, Pilger said that Spargo’s plan to solicit funds was “unnecessary” because of his “significant assets.”
He then referenced Bruce Blatchly, who alerted the Commission on Judicial Conduct to Spargo’s solicitations at the 2003 luncheon; the commission had already been investigating Spargo’s actions during his 1999 campaign for town judge in Berne.
“A severe sentence today should encourage people like Mr. Blatchly to come forward,” Pilger said.
Jones then rose from his seat, speaking passionately on Spargo’s behalf, and painting the defendant’s life as “honorable and distinguished.”
“You can’t judge a man by his worst moments,” Jones told the court. “You have to look at the whole life.” Jones called Spargo “one of the finest election lawyers in this state, if not this country.”
Jones went on to say that Spargo is independent, and has, at times, been “stubbornly independent.”
“He saw his contest with the commission as a crusade,” and lost sight of what mattered, Jones said. “Tom Spargo has lost the privilege to practice law…It’s gone forever. He’s lost the position of respect and admiration in his family. How’s he going to get that back?” his lawyer asked.
A prison sentence, Jones concluded, would be “barbaric,” and “a cruel redundancy,” given the effect his crimes have already had on his personal and professional life.
Once Jones took his seat, Judge Sharpe spoke his mind. There is no greater challenge, Sharpe said, than sentencing a fellow lawman.
“It is the most difficult, and the most distasteful, thing to do,” said Sharpe. But, he went on, “We can’t ignore what happened”: Spargo, a judge, sought to illegally obtain money.
“This is not a case where, because of substance abuse, a lawyer steals money out of a trust fund,” Sharpe said. “This is extortion.”
However, Sharpe said that he views the advisory guidelines cited by Pilger as just that advisory. Thus, he declined to hand down a sentence at the high end of the guidelines, limiting Spargo’s imprisonment to 27 months. Sharpe also decided against imposing a fine, as this would mostly hurt Spargo’s wife and family.
Following the sentencing, Spargo said, “The judge considered everything. He had everything available to him and made a judgment, which, as he explained thoroughly from an objective point of view, was important to him.”
“I would have a dissenting voice,” Jones said, adding later, “Sentencing him to prison on top of all he’s otherwise lost, it’s a life in ruins.”
Asked if he would have done anything differently, Spargo said, “I made the best decisions I could as I went along. The judge remarked that the fight with the commission may have gone on a little more intensely than it should…We did what we wound up doing…and the result is where we are. We’ll deal with it.”