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Burke

Suffolk County Legislator Rob Trotta. File photo by Rachel Shapiro

Suffolk County officials have set their sights on the wallet of a disgraced ex-police chief, looking to recoup costs of litigation.

Nearly three months after Suffolk County legislators tabled a proposal to sue former police chief James Burke over the $1.5 million settlement it paid out to his victim, the Suffolk County Legislature passed a measure March 5 to begin a lawsuit in an attempt to recoup compensation and salary Burke had received up to when he resigned in October 2015. 

“Burke clearly breached the oath he took as an officer and the duty he owed the county to serve in his capacity faithfully and lawfully,” Legislator Rob Trotta (R-Fort Salonga) said. The Smithtown legislator was the main sponsor of the bill. 

The bill would authorize the county attorney to file a lawsuit by using “the faithless servant doctrine,” which dates back to the 19th century and allows employers to recoup all compensation paid to an employee while they acted in a disloyal manner. 

The resolution was drafted to recover the compensation paid specifically to Burke and no other county employee. 

“It feels great,” Trotta said. “Finally a victory for Suffolk County taxpayers.”

Originally, Trotta wanted to recoup money from a 2018 settlement the county paid to Christopher Loeb, who was shackled and beaten by Burke back in 2012 as part of a cover-up. County attorney Dennis Brown said at a December 2018 Ways and Means Committee public hearing there was no basis for a possible lawsuit and there was no way to recover or recoup the settlement dollars paid in the lawsuit, according to previous reporting by TBR News Media.  

In the federal civil lawsuit, the county agreed to pay the settlement amount for the civil rights offenses as they were the ex-police chief’s employer at the time. The county also paid the settlement for the actions of six other police officers who helped cover up Burke’s actions when he allegedly beat a handcuffed man for stealing a duffle bag from his vehicle.  

At the same hearing, Howard Miller, a Garden City-based attorney with the law firm Bond Schoeneck & King, presented a case for the county suing Burke for his wages and compensation paid by the county under the faithless servant doctrine.

Miller mentioned that he had successfully represented clients at the state level in similar lawsuits, including the William Floyd School District.

“This doctrine is designed to create a deterrent to future acts like this, of corruption and misconduct,” Miller said at the December 2018 public hearing.

Brown also said in a statement that the Suffolk County Charter authorizes either the county executive or the Legislature to direct legal action. The resolution that was passed by the Legislature provides a framework specific to that action, but does not limit the ability of the county executive to pursue additional legal action.

Trotta hopes the measure sets a precedent that anyone, whether in government or not, will be held accountable for their actions. 

“Former District Attorney Spota empowered and conspired with Jim Burke and Chris McPartland,” County Executive Steve Bellone (D) spokesperson Jason Elan said in a statement. “Clearly, all three fall under the faithless servant doctrine so any legal action to recoup taxpayer-funded salary and benefits should include each individual.”

According to a representative from the county executive’s office, Bellone signed the legislation to recover salary and benefits from Burke on March 11 and further directed a similar suit be filed against ex-District Attorney Thomas Spota and his top aide who have also been indicted on related charges.

Legislators not letting Bellone off hook

Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone is searching for ways to improve the county's financial outlook. File photo by Alex Petroski

A high stakes political finger pointing battle is ramping up in Suffolk County.

Top Suffolk County officials have been left to answer for the promotion of former Chief of Police James Burke, who in February pleaded guilty to charges of a civil rights violation and conspiracy to obstruct justice, which occurred following the arrest of Smithtown man Christopher Loeb in 2012.

On Tuesday Legislator Rob Trotta (R-Fort Salonga) held a press conference at the Suffolk County Legislature in Riverhead where he and fellow legislators, including Tom Cilmi (R-Bay Shore) and Kevin McCaffrey (R-Lindenhurst), called for both County Executive Steve Bellone and District Attorney Tom Spota to resign from their positions.

On Thursday, Bellone joined the list of people including the legislators and Suffolk County Sheriff Vincent DeMarco calling for Spota to resign.

“For refusing to cooperate and work with federal law enforcement to prosecute crime in this county, for refusing and blocking federal law enforcement who were working on the Gilgo Beach serial murder case, for allowing violent criminals to go free to protect political friends, for lying about Jim Burke and conspiring to conceal his past…” Bellone said Thursday afternoon on the steps of Spota’s Hauppauge office. “Tom Spota, you must resign from this office so that we can begin the process of reforming this place governmentally and politically in a way that we can ensure this doesn’t happen again. If you fail to do so, I will call on the governor to exercise his authority under the constitution to remove you from this office.”

Trotta arrived while Bellone addressed the media, and interjected that reporters were speaking with a “co-conspirator.” Trotta reiterated his stance on Thursday that Bellone is as much a part of the political corruption problem in the county as Spota for his role in promoting Burke, and standing by him despite evidence of Burke’s troubled past.

“I have never said that I have never made mistakes in my public career,” Bellone said. “I’ve made many mistakes. But they have never, ever been with ill intent and I’ve learned from my mistakes and I don’t repeat them. When I promoted Jim Burke I consulted District Attorney Tom Spota. When I fired Jim Burke I did not consult Tom Spota.”

Bellone said he promoted Burke not because of recommendations from Spota or others, but because he was a “charismatic” and “impressive” person who made a memorable presentation.

Bellone handed a letter calling for Spota’s resignation to one of his employees inside the office, and Spota later met the media to respond Thursday.

“It’s a very, very difficult day for me,” Spota said in a video of that press conference. “He has delivered to me a letter asking for my resignation. I have absolutely no reason why I should resign, or should I be removed from office.”

Spota fired back at Bellone, suggesting his motivation was a “personal vendetta” against Spota for investigating and prosecuting people Bellone was close to.

On Tuesday, Bellone responded to Trotta, Cilmi and McCaffrey’s calls for his resignation through an email from a spokeswoman.

“Rob Trotta and Tom Cilmi are partisan politicians who just don’t get it,” the statement said. “This is not a partisan issue, this is about sweeping out a culture of abuse and corruption in the district attorney’s office.  I regret that I trusted the word of the district attorney regarding Jim Burke, and I have learned from that error in judgment.”

Trotta made it clear following Bellone’s comments that the county executive should not be let off the hook.

“It was an Academy Award winning performance,” Trotta said of Bellone’s press conference. “Forty-eight hours ago we were partisan, and we were political hacks. Now all of the sudden he responds to a Newsday article, he sees what’s going on and he tries to jump in front of it. It’s ridiculously absurd…He’s a total, unadulterated liar.”