The Suffolk Legislature, after a bitter debate, delayed a vote on legislation aimed at recovering salary and benefits paid to convicted former police chief James Burke over concerns it could set a precedent affecting other county employees.
The motion to table the resolution until the March 5 legislative meeting was approved on a 13-4 vote. Democrats William Spencer and Kara Hahn and Republican caucus leader Tom Cilmi voted no, along with Legis. Robert Trotta (R-Fort Salonga), sponsor of the bill to claw back the money from Burke
The tabling request was made by Legis. Tom Muratore (R-Ronkonkoma), a former police union vice president. Muratore said later he supports Trotta's resolution, but needs more time to review it so lawmakers can get "all the T’s crossed and I’s dotted to get it right.”
Trotta, a retired police detective who is running for Suffolk County executive, said lawmakers who voted to table “folded to the pressure of the police union and instead sided with convicted felon James Burke.”
Trotta said, “Rank and file cops will be outraged by the PBA’s intervention, protecting a felon who disgraced the shield.”
Burke was convicted on federal charges of beating burglary suspect Christopher Loeb at a precinct station house in 2012 and orchestrating a cover-up.
During the debate Wednesday, Louis Tutone, PBA first vice president, shouted from the audience at Trotta to "open your ears … you might get some legislation done.”
Earlier, Tutone had said in an interview the union had “no problem” with the bill’s intent, but was “concerned about the ramifications” for PBA members going forward.
In response to Trotta's remarks, Legis. Wiliam Lindsay (D-Oakdale) said, “I take great exception to being called corrupt." Lindsay said he voted to table Trotta's bill because "I want to be careful [about] wading in on this because I don’t want to erode the protections we give to all our employees.”
Trotta’s bill directs the county attorney to file suit against Burke, using “the faithless servant doctine” 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, who specializes in such cases, told a legislative committee earlier he won a $1 million award against two former William Floyd School District officials who embezzled funds.
County attorney Dennis Brown said such a lawsuit would break new ground because the faithless servant law largely has been used in commercial areas. Brown also warned of a “slippery slope” of unintended consequences should the county pursue the case against Burke.
Presiding Officer DuWayne Gregory (D-Copiague) said while he doesn’t often agree with Trotta, his bill is “appropriate.” Gregory said he would not back a lengthy delay.
“I am voting for this,” Gregory said. “If you commit a crime on our time and we recognize your actions are so bad we won’t defend you,” the county should try to recoup the salary.
“I won’t tolerate that,” Gregory said.
The county did not represent Burke in a lawsuit brought by 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.