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Ex-police chief James Burke weighs guilty plea, sources say

James Burke, former Suffolk police chief of department,

James Burke, former Suffolk police chief of department, is expected to decide Friday, Feb. 26, 2016, whether he'll take a plea deal on civil rights and conspiracy charges. He's shown in FBI custody on Dec. 9, 2015. Credit: Steve Pfost

James Burke, the former Suffolk police chief of department, is expected to decide Friday whether he will plead guilty to violating the civil rights of a Smithtown man and then orchestrating a departmental cover-up of the crime, sources said Thursday night.

Burke, who was arrested in December on the two charges — a month after he resigned from the department while under investigation by federal agents — is scheduled to be in federal court Friday in Central Islip before U.S. District Judge Leonard Wexler.

Under the terms of the plea deal being discussed, sources said, Burke would face about 5 years in prison. That would be within suggested federal sentencing guidelines for the crimes.

Since Burke was arrested, Wexler has ordered him held without bond as a danger to the community, after federal prosecutors argued that Burke still has influence over the department.

Friday’s hearing was originally scheduled to be a routine pretrial status conference.

But at the last status conference at the beginning of the month, federal prosecutors indicated they had offered Burke a plea deal to avoid trial.

Burke’s attorney, Joseph Conway, and federal prosecutors Lara Treinis Gatz and John Durham declined to comment on the terms of any plea deal.

Negotiations on the deal’s final terms were going on until late Thursday, the sources said.

At the early February court appearance, Wexler set Friday as the date either to see whether a plea deal has been agreed to or to confer about a trial date

If there is no plea deal, Wexler said jury selection would begin on March 21.

Burke was arrested in the driveway of his St. James home in December by special investigators reporting directly to Eastern District U.S. Attorney Robert Capers and FBI agents.

At the time, Capers said: “I wish to make it clear that no one is above the law . . . certainly not the highest ranking uniformed officer in the Suffolk County Police Department.”

The charges accuse Burke in December 2012 of beating a heroin addict, Christopher Loeb, who had been arrested after having stolen a duffel bag from the chief’s department-issued SUV parked in front of Burke’s home.

The charges also allege Burke enlisted nearly a dozen officers and detectives in the obstruction of justice by covering up the alleged crime.

In a letter successfully arguing that Burke should be denied bond, prosecutors alleged that he initially had gotten the officers and detectives to lie to federal agents and a grand jury investigating the Loeb incident.

The bail letter said, at one point, “Burke regaled a group of officers with his account of the assault, saying it reminded him of his ‘old days’ as a young police officer and referred to the detectives who were present at the assault of a defenseless prisoner as his ‘palace guards.’ ”

At a news conference after the Burke arrest, Capers was asked if anyone else in Suffolk law enforcement will be investigated or indicted as a result of the Burke probe.

Capers replied: “Stay tuned.”

Newsday has recently reported that at least three investigators in the Suffolk district attorney’s office have been subpoenaed by the grand jury looking into whether an illegal wiretap was placed on the phone of a detective suspected of leaking information on Burke to federal investigators or to a Newsday reporter.

Newsday has also reported the boss of those investigators, Christopher McPartland, the district attorney’s chief of investigations and one of Suffolk District Attorney Thomas Spota’s closest aides, has received a target letter from the grand jury on the case.

Attorneys for the four either declined to comment or did not return phone calls.

Neither the investigators nor McPartland have been charged with any wrongdoing.

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