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Long IslandPolitics

Discord over choice of law firm to recoup funds from Burke

Former Suffolk police Chief of Department James Burke

Former Suffolk police Chief of Department James Burke in 2015. Photo Credit: Newsday/Steve Pfost

A Suffolk committee issued a waiver Wednesday authorizing the hiring of an outside law firm to recover salary and benefits from ex-county Police Chief James Burke, who was convicted of beating a burglary suspect and orchestrating a cover-up.

But hours later, the choice created concern among GOP lawmakers when Legis. Robert Trotta, the bill’s sponsor,  disclosed that members of the law firm are significant campaign donors of County Executive Steve Bellone, a Democrat.

The three-member legislative-executive committee earlier in the day unanimously approved the hiring of Stagg, Terenzi, Confusione & Wabnik of Garden City to bring a case against Burke under the state “faithless servant doctrine,” which permits employers to withhold pay and benefits for the period in which employees act disloyally or are involved in illegal actions.

Bellone has also directed similar action against ex-District Attorney Thomas Spota and former corruption prosecutor Christopher McPartland, indicted on related charges. Spota and McPartland have yet to be tried. 

Trotta, a Fort Salonga Republican, filed his resolution after the county settled a lawsuit for $1.5 million with burglary suspect Christopher Loeb, whom Burke beat up and then tried to cover up the incident. The county did not represent Burke in the case after his guilty plea, but it did represent six other police officials.

 A memo from the Law Department stated that Stagg was the only firm to meet the requirement to work on contingency and only be paid for a victory or favorable settlement. The firm will get 33.3 percent of the court award or settlement, plus out-of-pocket expenses, which means “significant savings” for the county. 

The county solicited 22 law firms that specialize in such litigation and got three responses. One of the firms, Creedon & Gill, sought a straight hourly fee, while Bond, Schoeneck & King proposed a hybrid fee structure blending an hourly fee and contingency fee, the memo stated.

Trotta questioned the selection, noting that the Stagg firm’s partners have given about $31,000 to Bellone’s campaign since taking office, most recently $5,000 on March 26, a week after the Law Department solicited proposals.

“I have no faith in a law firm that has given such large sums to Bellone, whose judgment could be clouded by money,” Trotta said. The law firm declined to comment.

Bellone aides reacted angrily.

“Trotta’s conspiracy theories are getting crazier by the day,” said Marykate Guilfoyle, a Bellone spokeswoman. “This was a competitive process that ultimately selected one firm that agreed not to charge the county a dime unless the case is won.”

 But Legis. Tom Cilmi, GOP caucus leader, called the hiring “a clear conflict of interest and a law firm not connected to Bellone should be selected.”

Presiding Officer DuWayne Gregory (D-Copiague) declined to comment.

Trotta, in sponsoring the measure, had asked another attorney, Howard Miller of the Bond, Schoeneck firm, to testify before the legislature earlier this year because his firm won $1 million for William Floyd school district from two ex-school officials who embezzled funds. Trotta said he has received no money for Miller’s firm.

Trotta also questioned Bellone’s decision to include Spota and McPartland in the litigation. “I don’t think a suit works until they are found guilty,” he said.

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