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Long IslandColumnistsJoye Brown

James Burke letters highlight need for Suffolk corruption office

James Burke, former Suffolk police chief of department,

James Burke, former Suffolk police chief of department, admitted slapping and hitting a suspect, causing bodily injury. Photo Credit: James Carbone

Last week’s Punch and Judy show, featuring the Suffolk County executive and Suffolk’s top law enforcement official, is reason enough for lawmakers to go through with plans to create an office to probe corruption, fraud and waste in government.

For three days, County Executive Steve Bellone and District Attorney Thomas Spota sparred verbally over reports by Newsday’s Tania Lopez over two letters circulating in the county in 2011.

One letter, two pages long and unsigned, warned the newly elected Bellone about bringing James Burke into his administration. It cited specific allegations of misconduct, including that Burke “was known to frequent prostitutes.”

The other, three pages penned by Spota on DA letterhead, vouched for Burke to the head of a Bellone-appointed committee tasked with conducting a nationwide search for police commissioner.

Burke was listed among potential candidates for the top spot in a Newsday story on Dec. 6, 2011, but he never applied to the search committee for the job.

Spota wrote his letter, saying allegations against Burke were “trash,” to committee head Kevin Law on Dec. 12.

Three days later, Bellone appointed Burke as chief of department, the highest ranking uniformed post, which reports to the commissioner.

Bellone’s decision to build his department around Burke affected the search for police commissioner — as candidates, who, as is traditional, would have preferred to select their own chief rather than have one assigned, dropped out.

Fast forward to Dec. 14, 2012, almost a year to the day of Spota’s letter. That’s when Burke — as he later would tell a federal judge — went to the Fourth Precinct. He admitted beating a suspect, Christopher Loeb, who was chained to the floor.

Afterward, Burke acknowledged in court, he and others interfered with a federal investigation into the beating of Loeb, who had stolen Burke’s duffel bag from a department-issued SUV parked outside Burke’s home.

In February, Burke pleaded guilty to charges stemming from the beating and cover-up. He is awaiting sentencing.

Last week’s letters raise questions about how Burke was selected, and why he was allowed to stay in his post for so long.

Could Bellone have more thoroughly vetted Burke, given the specific allegations included in the anonymous letter?

For that matter, how thorough was the vetting by Spota, whom Burke first met as a teenage prosecution witness in a slaying case, before taking him into the DA’s office in 2002?

Years earlier, in 1995, an internal affairs report found Burke guilty of conduct unbecoming to an officer for twice failing to safeguard his weapon, engaging in sexual acts in police vehicles and having a sexual relationship with a felon “actively engaged in criminal conduct, including the possession and sale of illegal drugs, prostitution and larceny.”

How, then, could Burke rise, so far and so fast, with such a record? And why did Bellone keep supporting Burke, even as allegations of the beating and a cover-up began circulating in 2012?

Last week’s letters provide more pieces to the puzzle, yet it’s far from complete. Yes, there’s more to come from the ongoing federal investigation, but that doesn’t mean Suffolk lawmakers can’t begin tackling corruption, too.

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