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Suffolk lawmakers vote to sue to recoup James Burke salary, benefits

Former Suffolk County police chief of department James

Former Suffolk County police chief of department James Burke is escorted to a vehicle by an FBI agent outside the FBI office in Melville in December 2015. Credit: Newsday/Steve Pfost

The Suffolk County Legislature voted unanimously Tuesday to start a lawsuit to recoup salary and benefits from ex-police chief James Burke, who was convicted of beating a burglary suspect and orchestrating a cover up.

The measure was approved after sponsor Robert Trotta (R-Fort Salonga) amended the resolution so that it is “strictly limited” to Burke and would not set a precedent to act similarly with other county employees.

Trotta’s bill directs the county attorney to file suit against Burke using the “faithless servant doctrine,” which permits employers to withhold pay and benefits for the period in which employees act disloyally or are involved in misdeeds.

Attorney Howard Miller earlier had told lawmakers he won a $1 million award against two ex-William Floyd School District officials who embezzled funds. 

“Burke clearly breached the duty he owed the county,” said Trotta. “By committing serious crimes and using his position to impede the investigation … Mr. Burke showed loyalty to himself to the detriment of the county.”

Trotta said he hoped the measure would, “will send a message to all employees, government or not, that they can be held responsible for their actions.”

Jason Elan, spokesman for Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone, said in a statement that Bellone, "will sign the legislation despite his concerns that the bill does not permit the county to recoup monies from former District Attorney Tom Spota who empowered and conspired with Burke.”

Spota and a former key aide, Christopher McPartland, face trial on May 6 on federal charges of covering up the assault by Burke. Spota and McPartland have pleaded not guilty.

Burke was convicted on federal charges of beating burglary suspect Christopher Loeb at a precinct station house in 2012 and orchestrating a cover-up.

Suffolk did not represent Burke in the 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 attorney for the case.

Trotta originally sought to recover the $1.5 million in settlement funds. But Suffolk County Attorney Dennis Brown called Trotta's measure “frivolous” because the county had not represented Burke.

After Trotta revised the measure to use the “faithless servant” doctrine, police union officials raised concerns it could set a precedent that could affect many county workers. The proposal was tabled and amended again.

Louis Tutone, PBA first vice president, said while there may be “some concerns that it could be potentially harmful to county employees, I believe the new language is sufficient.”

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