Thomas Spargo on trial for alleged shakedown of attorneys in his court
The Albany Times Union by BRENDAN J. LYONS - August 25, 2009
ALBANY, NY -- An Ulster County attorney testified Monday that he felt a chill six years ago when former state Supreme Court Justice Thomas J. Spargo allegedly tried to extort $10,000 from him to offset the judge's growing legal fees in a judicial disciplinary case. Bruce Blatchly, who has been practicing law in New Paltz for 32 years, was the second witness to take the stand on the opening day of Spargo's criminal trial in U.S. District Court in Albany. He described for a jury how he felt cornered when Spargo, who was presiding over eight of his cases, called him on his cellphone in December 2003 and allegedly boasted that he would be returning to Ulster County the following year, therefore presiding over many of Blatchly's important cases. In addition, Spargo's close friend, Surrogate Court Judge Catheryn Doyle, was expected to preside over Blatchly's own divorce from his now ex-wife. ''He said that it looked like a nice Christmas for him,'' Blatchly told the jury. ''He was very, uh, bouncy, happy.'' ''How did you feel?'' asked assistant U.S. Attorney Richard C. Pilger. ''Pretty much the opposite,'' Blatchly answered. ''Now that my divorce was in his control, or the control his friend ... screwed.'' Spargo was an Albany-area state Supreme Court justice who was thrown off the bench three years ago by a state judicial panel in connection with the same alleged shakedown of lawyers, including Blatchly, who had filed a complaint with the state Commission on Judicial Conduct. The investigation, which involved court appeals and lengthy hearings, cost Spargo his judge's robes but not his law license. The judicial scrutiny resulted in Spargo accumulating a legal bill that topped $140,000.
Federal prosecutors allege that Spargo, with the help of close friends, turned to attorneys to try and raise money to offset the legal costs, including lawyers who had cases pending before him. On Dec. 10 a federal grand jury in Albany indicted Spargo on two felony counts of attempted extortion and attempted bribery. The case was brought by prosecutors with the Justice Department's Public Integrity Section in Washington, D.C., with the help of Albany's FBI office. The indictment was filed days before the expiration of a five-year statute of limitations. Blatchly, a part-time town judge who works in a two-attorney law firm, has been cast as the government's key witness because of two private conversations he had with Spargo in November and December 2003. At the time, Spargo's chambers were in Albany but he was covering cases in Ulster County as part of a standard rotation by judges in the 7-county Third Judicial District.
Prosecutors contend Blatchly was one of several successful Ulster County attorneys who were solicited for $10,000 donations by Spargo. Months before it happened, they said, Spargo had signed an order awarding $1 million in legal fees to Blatchly's law firm in connection with an insurance settlement in a motorcycle crash case. E. Stewart Jones, Spargo's attorney, characterized Blatchly's recounting of his conversations with Spargo as a ''claim'' and through his questions on cross-examination he implied that Spargo had simply been raising money for his judicial campaign. In his opening statement Jones characterized the conversations between Spargo, Blatchly and the other attorneys as ''lawyers' talk'' that he said was ''taken out of context.'' Pilger countered that Spargo had been elected -- uncontested -- to a 14-year term in 2001 and was not in campaign mode in 2003. ''He was a corrupt judge,'' Pilger told jurors in his opening statement. ''Judge Spargo definitely knew that Blatchly's law firm would have the money.'' Blatchly testified that he had eight cases before Spargo in 2003 and felt uneasy when Spargo invited he and several other Ulster County attorneys to lunch that December. ''My concern was that if we did not pay the money we would now have an enemy hearing all these cases that we had,'' Blatchly said on the stand.
Several other attorneys also were pressed to donate money to Spargo's legal defense fund, according to prosecutors, and much of the pressure was put on by Spargo's close friend, attorney Sanford Rosenblum. It's unclear whether Rosenblum will take the stand this week. Jones said Rosenblum could provide ''exculpatory'' evidence for Spargo but the government has declined to grant him immunity in exchange for his testimony. Rosenblum earlier invoked his Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination and declined to cooperate with prosecutors. Doyle may be called to testify. She was censured by the state judicial panel two years ago for ''evasive and deceptive'' testimony during its investigation into the matter. As a result Doyle lost her appointment as an acting state Supreme Court justice and returned to Albany County Surrogate's Court, where she was elected to a judgeship in 2000. Doyle obtained an attorney after being confronted by FBI agents during the investigation of Spargo and later testified in front of the grand jury that indicted him. She did not invoke a Fifth Amendment right. Federal prosecutors said Doyle was not a target of their investigation but that they considered her a ''co-conspirator.'' Her role as an attendee at the December 2003 luncheon where several attorneys were allegedly solicited for Spargo's legal defense fund is a key part of the government's case, according to court papers. The trial continues today in front of U.S. District Judge Gary L. Sharpe. Lyons can be reached at 454-5547 or by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.