A proposal to sue ex-Suffolk Police Chief James Burke to recoup a $1.5 million settlement paid to a suspect he beat while handcuffed was tabled in legislative committee Thursday after the county attorney said the suit would be "frivolous" because Burke was severed from the county's case.
However, several lawmakers asked County Attorney Dennis Brown to determine whether the county could get back salary and benefits Burke received for the period after he broke the law.
The proposed legislation stalled after an opinion written by Brown was brought up by Ways and Means Committee chairwoman Legis. Bridget Fleming (D-Sag Harbor). In that opinion, Brown stated Burke was separated from the civil lawsuit brought by his victim, Christopher Loeb, against the county, six other police officials and Burke because the county would not defend him once he pleaded guilty to federal charges over the beating and its cover-up.
Burke hired his own attorney to deal with Loeb’s suit against him.
“I think everyone agrees the facts are egregious … they do shock the conscience,” said Fleming. But, she said, Trotta's original resolution is “ill-advised” and could cost taxpayers more in sanctions and attorney fees.
Legis. Robert Trotta (R-Fort Salonga), the resolution’s sponsor, admitted “the wording may not be perfect,” and said he would amend it to make it broader. But he criticized Brown for failing to look out for taxpayers.
Trotta said the county could also pursue a lawsuit against Burke under what is known as the “faithless servant doctrine,” in which employers can withhold pay and benefits for a period when an employee acts disloyally or is involved in misdeeds.
Howard Miller, a private attorney who has successfully brought similar claims against local governments, said at the meeting that he believes a lawsuit to claw back Burke’s compensation would be “plainly meritorious” and the county could have a “powerful case,” in part because of his criminal admissions.
Miller represented the William Floyd school district in a case against two business officials who embezzled funds. He said the district won a $1 million award against each and ultimately recovered $800,000. He also said he represented Binghamton against its parks commissioner, recovering $300,000.
“The doctrine is designed to create a deterrent to avert future acts … of corruption and misconduct,” Miller said. “It’s about telling employees…you can’t do this and get away with it.”
While Brown doubted the “faithless servant doctrine” could succeed, Fleming asked him for a further review, saying “it merits … attention.” Brown agreed.
“I think everyone would love to get money back from Mr. Burke,” legislative counsel George Nolan said. “The question is do we have a viable course of action.”