A proposal for Suffolk County sue former police chief James Burke over the $1.5 million settlement it paid out to his victim was tabled by the county Legislature as legal advice on the best approach to seek reparations differed.
The county’s Ways and Means Committee held a public hearing Dec. 13 on Legislator Rob Trotta’s (R-Fort Salonga) resolution to have Suffolk District Attorney Tim Sini (D) initiate a lawsuit against Burke for the settlement the county paid out to Christopher Loeb in February 2018.
Legislator Bridget Fleming (D-Sag Harbor),the chairwoman of the committee, cited a memo from county attorney Dennis Brown that advised Trotta’s proposed lawsuit “would likely be unsuccessful but could expose us to [court] sanctions and attorney fees.”
“As the committee has discussed, there is no way to recover or recoup the settlement dollars paid in that lawsuit.”
— Dennis Brown
“There is no basis for it,” Brown said when questioned. “As the committee has discussed, there is no way to recover or recoup the settlement dollars paid in that lawsuit.”
In the federal civil lawsuit, Suffolk agreed to pay the $1.5 million settlement as Burke’s employer at the time for the civil rights offenses and the actions of six other police officers who participated in covering up the ex-chief’s actions. Burke retained his own private attorney and settled Loeb’s civil case against him for an undisclosed sum, according to Fleming.
Howard Miller, a Garden City-based attorney with the law firm Bond Shoeneck & King, presented a case for the county suing Burke for his wages and compensation paid by the county under the faithless servant doctrine. This doctrine, according to Miller, dates back to the 19th century allowing employers to seek compensation back from disloyal employees.
“Here, the facts are egregious as you had not only beating of the suspect but systematic coverup of that,” he said. “This doctrine is designed to create a deterrent to future acts like this, of corruption and misconduct.”
Miller stated doing so wouldn’t necessarily require further court litigation, given Burke had pled guilty, but could help Suffolk to claw back wages and any benefits paid to the former police chief from the date of the incident with Loeb, occurring in 2012, through Burke’s resignation in October 2015. While he admitted a lawsuit to see back the $1.5 million settlement was iffy, Miller said he has successfully represented clients at the state level who have been successful in similar lawsuits, including the William Floyd school district.
“What would be a successful lawsuit in my opinion, a plainly meritorious suit would be to go after the compensation [Burke] was paid while he was covering up his misconduct,” Miller said.
Fleming called for the county attorney to research the county’s legal possibility further and received a vote to table the discussion. Trotta has promised to submit an new resolution seeking to sue Burke for repayment of his salary.
Several Suffolk residents and former police department members asked the Legislature to further investigate what its legal options were for seeking repayment of the settlement, Burke’s salary or pension.
“You as the legislative body of our county have a fiduciary responsibility to Suffolk residents to go after the employees whose actions harm their employees, thus harming Suffolk County residents,” Pam Farino, of Smithtown, said. “Disgraced ex-chief James Burke did just that.”
Huntington resident James McGoldrick complimented Trotta for his intentions but asked the county’s officials to consider the cost of any legal action, considering the total funds Suffolk stood to regain might not be enough compared to the expenses of further litigation.