A strong advocate for Republican causes, Thomas J. Spargo faces prison in shakedown bid
The Albany Times Union by ROBERT GAVIN - August 28, 2009
"Judges are supposed to serve the people who elected them, not their own self-interests," said John F. Pikus, the special agent who heads the FBI's Albany branch, which was involved in the case. "What Mr. Spargo did is nothing more than old-fashioned extortion." While Spargo faces a maximum of 20 years in prison for his attempted extortion and a maximum of 10 years for the attempted bribery conviction, federal sentencing guidelines would likely result in lesser penalties. Defense attorney E. Stewart Jones indicated the punishment for his client could range from probation to 3 years behind bars. Spargo will be sentenced Dec. 21 by District Judge Gary Sharpe, who presided over the four-day trial. "The jury system works," Spargo told reporters outside the James T. Foley U.S. Courthouse, "whether you like it or not." Jones, a prominent Troy defense attorney, described Spargo's trial as an "uphill battle," noting the federal government's extremely high conviction rate. "This is a sad outcome for someone who was a superb judge, superb lawyer and superb human being," Jones said. Asked why Spargo was convicted, Jones said, "You'll have to talk to the jury about that." Spargo was cross-endorsed in a deal for election to a 14-year term in state Supreme Court in 2001. Although his chambers were in Albany, Spargo presided over cases in Ulster County, which is part of the state's Third Judicial District.
By January 2002, Spargo faced allegations of ethical violations -- unrelated to his future bench removal and criminal case -- from the state Commission on Judicial Conduct. Court papers showed that by September 2003, Spargo's legal bills had "outstripped his ability to pay them." The bills would eventually exceed $140,000. At the federal trial, the government proved Spargo tried to extort attorneys to offset his legal costs, including Bruce Blatchly, an Ulster County lawyer with more than 32 years of experience, who had eight cases before the judge. Spargo solicited a $10,000 bribe from Blatchly on Nov. 13, 2003. But when the attorney declined to pay up, Spargo pressured him again through a friend, identified as attorney Sanford Rosenblum, in the coat room of a Kingston restaurant, the government said in court papers. Blatchly testified Monday that Spargo then called him on his cellphone on Dec. 19, 2003. He said the judge boasted he would be returning to Ulster County in 2004 and would handle Blatchly's cases. In addition, he testified, the judge revealed that Spargo's close friend, Albany County Surrogate's Court Judge Cathryn Doyle, was expected to preside over Blatchly's divorce from his now ex-wife. According to Blatchly, Spargo said "it looked like a nice Christmas for him."
When a federal prosecutor, Senior Trial Attorney Richard C. Pilger, asked Blatchly how that remark made him feel, the lawyer replied, ''Pretty much the opposite,'' saying, ''Now that my divorce was in his control, or the control his friend ... screwed.'' The Spargo case was also prosecuted by Trial Attorney M. Kendall Day of the public integrity section of the U.S. attorney's office. Blatchly had filed a complaint with the state commission. Spargo was removed from the bench three years ago. Spargo was indicted in Albany last December. Jones said he will file a motion to reverse the verdict, but did not say on what he would base any appeal. Jones told reporters judges should either be appointed or publicly funded rather than rely on donors for campaign funds. "They should take this process and change it." He accused the state commission of targeting his client. Robert Tembeckjian, the commission's administrator, said the state commission's decision and the jury's verdict both ''speak for themselves… there wasn't anything personal. We were just doing our jobs."
Spargo, a onetime seminarian and Army paratrooper, was hearing cases in Albany on March 31, 2006, when word of the commission's ouster was delivered to him in a note from a secretary. "I've just been removed from the bench," he said aloud at the time. "I have to go." The removal was due to the same charges he was convicted of Thursday. Spargo had faced other allegations from the commission that he wrongly participated during the Bush-Gore recount in Florida, but they were dropped. In 1990, Spargo went before the Commission on Government Integrity on allegations he funneled $750,000 into a Poughkeepsie Town Board race to elect candidates who would back a mall the Syracuse-based Pyramid Co. had wanted to build in the 1980s. He denied any wrongdoing and the probe was closed after he resigned as counsel to the state GOP. Spargo had invoked his Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination 19 times. Robert Gavin can be reached at 434-2403 or by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org