James Burke, the former Suffolk police chief of department, pleaded guilty Friday to violating the civil rights of a Smithtown man and then orchestrating a departmental cover-up of the crime.
Burke, who was arrested in December, more than a month after he resigned from the department while under investigation by federal agents, admitted to the two charges while appearing in federal court in Central Islip before U.S. District Judge Leonard Wexler.
Under the terms of the plea deal, Burke, 51, will face anywhere from 3 years and 5 months to 4 years and 3 months in prison, a term that is within suggested federal sentencing guidelines for the crimes. If convicted at trial, Burke could have faced up to 20 years.
“On December 14, 2012, I was chief of the Suffolk County Police Department,” Burke, wearing prison-issued khakis, told the judge in a clear, precise voice. “On that day I went to the Fourth Precinct in Suffolk County.”
After telling the judge how he assaulted the man, Christopher Loeb, who had broken into his departmental SUV, Burke explained how he attempted to cover up the crime. “I and others did knowingly and intentionally conspire and took affirmative steps to obstruct, including conspiring with other participants not to cooperate with the investigation, so that the grand jury and the U.S. attorney’s office would not find out the true events of December 14, 2012,” Burke said.
In addition to the prison sentence, the plea deal requires Burke to be under 3 years of supervised release upon leaving prison and orders him to pay a fine which could be up to $250,000. There is nothing in the agreement that would require him to testify against anyone else in the case.
Before his statement, Burke, appeared upbeat, chatting amicably with his attorneys Joseph Conway and Nancy Bartling, of Mineola. His signature mustache remained shaved off, as it has been after his arrest.
Burke answered Wexler’s questions with few words in a crisp, firm voice.
When Wexler asked him how does he plead?
Burke replied: “I plead guilty.”
Wexler asked him if he was pleading guilty to both charges. Burke replied: “Yes, sir.”
Eastern District Assistant U.S. Attorney Lara Treinis Gatz requested that Wexler sentence Burke to 51 months, the top end of the scale. If the judge sentences Burke to more time, the former police chief could appeal.
Wexler also asked federal prosecutors, as is usual, how the government would prove its case, if Burke went to trial,
Treinis Gatz, who is prosecuting Burke along with Assistant U.S. Attorney John Durham, said the government has “approximately” 11 cooperating police officers who were in the Fourth Precinct room where Burke beat the Smithtown man, Christopher Loeb, or who were just outside. In addition, Treinis Gatz said, a subset of those 11 were engaged in the subsequent cover up.
Eastern District U.S. Attorney Robert L. Capers said in a statement after the plea: “The defendant violated his oath and responsibilities as a law enforcement officer by exacting personal vengeance, assaulting a handcuffed suspect, and abusing his authority as the highest ranking uniformed member of the Suffolk County Police Department …. Despite the efforts of the defendant and his co-conspirators to obstruct the federal investigation, he has been brought to justice.”
Bruce Barket of Garden City, the attorney for Loeb, who is suing Burke and Suffolk for violating his civil rights, said: “Today’s guilty plea is the first step to reforming the Suffolk law enforcement community. Our civil rights case has always been about abuse of power, corruption and the cover up.”
Suffolk County District Attorney Thomas Spota, a longtime mentor of Burke’s, and who had him head the district attorney’s detective unit before he became chief, declined to comment, according to spokesman Robert Clifford.
Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone, who appointed Burke to chief of department and had long-supported him in the face of at times intense criticism, said in a statement: “Jim Burke, someone I entrusted with great responsibility, lied to my face for nearly three years and orchestrated a cover-up to perpetuate that lie … Burke’s guilty plea today is a positive step forward in restoring justice in this County.”
Several of Burke’s relatives who were in the court declined to comment afterward.
Loeb, a heroin addict, had broken into Burke’s departmental SUV parked outside of the chief’s St. James home, and stolen a duffel bag containing a gun belt, ammunition, handcuffs, a whistle, a box of cigars, several sex toys, and what Loeb mistakenly thought was child pornography, sources have said.
Outside the courthouse Friday, Burke’s attorneys stressed that their client is not cooperating with federal investigators and has no intention of doing so.
“It’s a sad day for him, a tough day for him, after being with the police department for 31 years,” Conway said of his client. “Mr. Burke realizes he made a terrible mistake here and he is owning up to it.”
Capers also said in his December statement that the federal investigation into Suffolk County remains ongoing, “and we will seek to hold accountable anyone who violates another’s civil rights or attempts to obstruct justice.”
At a news conference after the Burke arrest in December, Capers was asked if anyone else in Suffolk law enforcement would 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 now 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 that 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.
Burke was arrested in the driveway of his St. James home in December by special investigators reporting directly to Capers and FBI agents.
Following Burke’s arrest, Wexler had ordered him held without bond as a danger to the community, after federal prosecutors argued that Burke still had influence over the department.
In a letter successfully arguing that Burke should be denied bond, federal prosecutor James Miskiewicz alleged that the chief 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.’”
No sentencing date has been set yet.