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Bellone signs bill to recoup James Burke's pay; also targets Spota and aide

James Burke, left, former chief of the Suffolk

James Burke, left, former chief of the Suffolk County Police Department is taken into custody by FBI agents outside his home in Smithtown on Dec. 9, 2015. Credit: James Carbone

Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone signed legislation Monday to sue to recoup salary and benefits from convicted ex-Police Chief James Burke over the beating of a burglary suspect and the cover-up. He also directed a similar suit be filed against ex-District Attorney Thomas Spota and a top aide who have been indicted on related charges.

The bill, unanimously approved last week by the Suffolk Legislature, authorized suing Burke to recoup pay after his 2012 beating of burglary suspect Christopher Loeb. The lawmakers called on attorneys to use what is known as the “faithless servant doctrine,” which permits an employer to withhold pay and benefits for a period when an employee acts disloyally or engages in misdeeds.

Bellone on Monday asked the county attorney to also sue Spota and his former anti-corruption prosecutor Christopher McPartland.

“Former DA Spota empowered and conspired with Jim Burke and Chris McPartland,” said Jason Elan, a Bellone spokesman, in a statement.  “Clearly, all three fall under the faithless servant doctrine so any legal action to recoup taxpayer-funded salary and benefits should include each individual.”

County Attorney Dennis Brown will solicit attorneys to represent the county against all three through a request for qualifications set to go out by week’s end. Brown said he expects to get responses about three weeks after the request is sent.

Spota and McPartland were indicted in October 2017 on federal charges of being involved in the cover-up of Loeb’s beating. Both have pleaded not guilty and are each free on $500,000 bond. Trial is scheduled to start May 6.

Attorneys for Spota and McPartland did not immediately return calls for comment.

The county agreed to a $1.5 million settlement with Loeb over the beating. Although the county did not represent Burke in the case after his guilty plea, it did represent six other police officials.

Bellone’s directive comes after union officials raised concerns during debate on the bill that it would set a precedent, allowing the county to go after the pay of other county employees. Because of those concerns, GOP sponsor Legis. Robert Trotta of Fort Salonga amended his bill to make clear the resolution was “strictly limited” to Burke.

On Monday, Brown said the bill doesn't preclude legal action against others.

“The Suffolk County Charter authorizes either the County Executive or the Legislature to direct legal action,” Brown said. “The resolution that was passed by the Legislature provides a framework specific to that action, but does not limit the ability of the County Executive to pursue additional legal action.”

Presiding Officer DuWayne Gregory (D-Copiague) worried that going after Spota and McPartland may be “premature” before trial.

“We sent the message with our resolution that we will not tolerate corruption and intend to protect the taxpayers,” Gregory said. “But it doesn’t seem to be an apples-to-apples situation. … They might want to keep their powder dry until after trial, at which time it could appropriate to consider it then.”

Brown said the timing of a lawsuit against Spota and McPartland “would have to be evaluated by an outside counsel. It’s more of a strategic decision more than anything else."

Trotta on Monday said Bellone "may be learning his job. He could have done this with Burke without legislative action but never did.”

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