“This case was ... about abusing judicial office for personal financial gain.”
-- Robert H. Tembeckjian
Commission on Judicial Conduct

Ex-Judge Convicted of Attempted Extortion and Soliciting Bribes
August 28, 2009

Former [New York State] Supreme Court Justice Thomas J. Spargo has been found guilty of attempting to shake down lawyers appearing before him to help pay the substantial legal bills he had incurred in fighting an ongoing investigation into his conduct by the Commission on Judicial Conduct.

At the close of a three-day trial in Albany, and after deliberating for seven hours, a Northern District jury yesterday convicted Mr. Spargo, 66, of both counts in the indictment against him: attempted extortion and soliciting a bribe.

The Albany Times-Union reported that Mr. Spargo smiled at times after the verdict, hugging one supporter in the courtroom.

Outside, Mr. Spargo told reporters, "The jury system works whether you like it or not."

E. Stewart Jones of Troy, Mr. Spargo's attorney, in an interview called the verdict "overkill" and "excessively punitive" to Mr. Spargo, who was removed in 2006 from the Albany Supreme Court bench at the recommendation of the conduct commission.

A spokesman for the U.S. Department of Justice said Mr. Spargo faced a maximum sentence of 20 years on the extortion charge and 10 years on the bribery charge, plus a fine of up to $250,000 on each count.

However, the sentence he receives from Judge Gary Sharpe in December will likely be much less. Mr. Jones said the advisory sentencing range was two to 3-1/2 years. In any case, he pointed out that the judge had the discretion to eschew a prison term entirely.

Mr. Jones said the sentence will play a big part in his client's decision whether to appeal.

Under state law, Mr. Spargo also will be disbarred.

Mr. Jones accused the conduct commission, and its administrator, Robert H. Tembeckjian, of referring the case to federal authorities after the agency "already had exacted its pound of flesh."

Mr. Jones added that he had argued to the jury that Mr. Spargo had paid the price for defending the First Amendment rights of judges in the commission proceedings.

Mr. Tembeckjian denied in an interview that the commission had initiated the federal case. Rather, he said his agency merely responded to requests for information from the federal prosecutors whose probe was already underway. Mr. Spargo's removal from office "ended the matter for us," he said.

"This case was not about the First Amendment but about abusing judicial office for personal financial gain," Mr. Tembeckjian added in a statement. "The commission fulfilled its responsibilities honorably. Its decision and the jury verdict speak for themselves."

The commission's probe figured prominently in the Albany trial. Mr. Tembeckjian was subpoenaed and although he did not testify, his cross-examination of Mr. Spargo before the commission was read into the record. Moreover, several commission witnesses appeared at the trial.

Extortion Charges

The government alleged that Mr. Spargo, while presiding in Kingston in 2003, had tried to extort thousands of dollars from three of Ulster County's most successful personal injury lawyers.

In particular, prosecutors said Mr. Spargo had called Bruce Blatchly of New Paltz into his chambers and attempted to solicit $10,000. When Mr. Blatchly balked, the judge followed up with a second solicitation in a phone call during which he observed that he and Albany County Surrogate Cathryn Doyle, a close friend, had been assigned to handle Mr. Blatchly's Ulster County cases, including Mr. Blatchly's own divorce.

The judge suggested that if the attorney did not play ball, those cases would be in jeopardy, the government sought to prove.

Mr. Jones said Mr. Spargo, an expert in election law active in Republican Party circles, was "disappointed and saddened" by the jury verdict, but observed that winning an acquittal, never easy in federal court, had been made even more of an "uphill struggle" by facts and circumstances of the case that were difficult to explain.

Mr. Jones did not present any witnesses because "we had nothing to add." He told the jury on summation that Mr. Spargo was an innocent man who would not have risked extorting money while under investigation by the commission.

The commission began investigating Mr. Spargo in 2000 when he was a part-time town justice. By 2003, his legal bills had reached $140,000 and were continuing to mount, Mr. Jones said. Mr. Jones also represented Mr. Spargo before the commission.

Mr. Jones acknowledged in the interview yesterday that lawyers had been asked to contribute money on Mr. Spargo's behalf but said the approach had been made by another lawyer without Mr. Spargo's knowledge.

Mr. Jones praised Judge Sharpe's handling of the case but stopped short of saying whether his client had received a fair trial. He said yesterday that he first wanted to investigate the impact of a "hearsay" report in the Times-Union.

Mr. Jones had argued before the jury that the government was obligated to produce Surrogate Doyle as a witness since prosecutors alleged Mr. Spargo had used her in his effort to extort Mr. Blatchly. Surrogate Doyle did not testify at trial.

Mr. Jones told the jury the government was hiding the surrogate because she would hurt its case. He said yesterday that his argument to the jury may have been undermined by what he said was a false report in the Times-Union that the surrogate was present in the courtroom.

The case was prosecuted by Senior Trial Attorney Richard C. Pilger and Kendall Day, a trial attorney from the Justice Department's Criminal Division in Washington.

"It is a sad day indeed when a judge breaks the laws that he is sworn to enforce," Assistant Attorney General Lanny A. Breuer said in a statement.

"Judges are supposed to serve the people who elected them, not their own self-interests. What Mr. Spargo did is nothing more than old-fashioned extortion," said FBI Special Agent in Charge John F. Pikus.

Copyright 2009, Incisive Media US Properties, LLC

From: Jeff Storey, "Ex-Judge Convicted of Attempted Extortion and Soliciting Bribes," New York Law Journal, August 28, 2009, http://www.nylj.com/nylawyer/news/09/08/082809c.html, accessed 08/28/09.  Reprinted in accordance with the "fair use" provision of Title 17 U.S.C. § 107 for a non-profit educational purpose.