A Suffolk Legislative committee Thursday took the first step toward pursuing a lawsuit to recover salary and benefits from convicted ex-police chief James Burke, who beat a burglary suspect and orchestrated a cover-up.
In a highly unusual move, the Democratic-controlled Ways and Means committee unanimously approved a revised resolution put forward by GOP Legis. Robert Trotta, who earlier this week declared his candidacy for county executive. An earlier version was tabled last month in the same committee.
Legis. Bridget Fleming (D-Sag Harbor), committee chair, said all lawmakers are interested in pursuing a lawsuit “if there is a legal way to recover the money and that's what this is trying to do.”
Presiding Officer DuWayne Gregory (D-Copiague) said he expects widespread support when the resolution comes up for a vote before the before the full legislature Wednesday.
“I finally got a bill passed,” said Trotta, whose resolutions routinely are tabled by majority Democrats. “It’s really a question of why we needed a bill at all. This is pretty much common sense. It’s another example of Bellone mismanagement.”
Jason Elan, spokesman for Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone, said the “administration has been fighting corruption for years, and if there is any way to make those who have abused their power pay back the taxpayers, we support it. We have been exploring ways to do this while holding wrongdoers accountable.”
John C. Meringolo, Burke’s attorney, declined to comment.
County Attorney Dennis Brown at a committee meeting a month ago called Trotta's proposal “frivolous” because the county did not represent Burke in the lawsuit brought by burglary suspect Christopher Loeb, which resulted in a $1.5 million settlement.
Loeb sued the county, Burke and six other police officials. But after pleading guilty to the beating and cover-up, Burke had to hire his own lawyer.
Trotta revised his measure to pursue Burke under what is known as the “faithless servant doctrine,” permitting an employer to withhold pay and benefits for the period in which an employee acts disloyally or is involved in misdeeds.
Attorney Howard Miller testified at the earlier committee meeting that he represented William Floyd School District when it won $1 million from two ex-fiscal officials who embezzled funds.
Brown said he revised his own position on Trotta's measure, “after doing further legal research." Brown said it was "legally arguable that a claim can be made.”
If the resolution passes the full county Legislature, Suffolk will seek an outside attorney who would work on a contingency basis and receive a share of whatever award is won.
Brown said his office could not be directly involved in the case because it had represented Burke, as police chief, in earlier lawsuits.