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DA Thomas Spota wrote letter vouching for James Burke in 2011

Former Suffolk County Police Chief James Burke, left,

Former Suffolk County Police Chief James Burke, left, at a news conference with District Attorney Thomas Spota in Riverhead on March 20, 2015. Credit: James Carbone

As an anonymous letter was being sent out to officials warning about allegations of misconduct against James Burke — who was being considered for Suffolk Police chief of department — District Attorney Thomas Spota wrote a letter in December 2011 defending the now-disgraced officer for his “outstanding leadership abilities” and calling the allegations about him “trash.”

Newsday has obtained a copy of the letter dated Dec. 12, 2011, in which Spota seeks to rebut, point by point, the allegations against Burke contained in an anonymous letter Newsday obtained last week, which states it was written by “dedicated hard working members” of the Suffolk Police Department. Those officers did not want incoming County Executive Steve Bellone “to be embarrassed or caught up in a scandal over the dealings” of Burke, the letter said.

Among other things, Spota’s letter rebuts allegations that Burke interfered with an Internal Affairs investigation into an officer accused of assault, that he attended parties with rampant drug use and that information gleaned from a wiretap was used as leverage to control former Suffolk County Executive Steve Levy. Of the allegations, the letter said, “It deserves emphasis and re-emphasis that not one shred of evidence has ever been brought forth to support any of this trash.”

Bellone said Spota mentioned he had written to vouch for Burke after Bellone, then county executive-elect, brought the anonymous warning about Burke to Spota. Bellone has said Spota offered to send the letter to him to allay his concerns. Bellone said he accepted the offer but doesn’t recall whether Spota ever sent the letter.

Neither Spota nor his spokesman returned several calls and emails on Thursday requesting comment on the letter.

On Wednesday, Spota told News 12 Long Island that he never reassured Bellone on Burke’s character. Spota also said he never looked at Burke’s Internal Affairs files.

He did say he vouched for Burke’s character in a letter sent to Long Island Association president and chief executive Kevin Law.

When asked why he stood behind Burke, Spota said: “Well, unfortunately I thought he would be a good . . . I never, never, never thought that he would have done what he did.”

Burke, 51, has pleaded guilty to violating a suspect’s civil rights and orchestrating a departmental cover-up of the crime.

Bellone told Newsday Spota’s reassurance is the reason he never discussed the allegations with Burke, whom he appointed chief of department in January 2012 to command 2,400 sworn officers.

“As disturbing as . . . [the Spota letter] is, it is far more disturbing that Tom Spota just yesterday claimed that he never vouched for Jim Burke,” Bellone said. “If I and the people of this county cannot trust the word of the DA, then we have a serious problem.”

In the letter, written on district attorney’s office letterhead, Spota lauds Burke, writing he had known him for many years and “entrusted him with overseeing law enforcement operations in my office for ten years. He is highly regarded in the law enforcement community by his subordinates and peers alike. He is not afraid of recognizing problems and taking action to remedy them, including, as the writer opines, make big changes if necessary.”

The letter was addressed to Law. The DA’s office sent it to Suffolk Democratic Party chairman Richard Schaffer as an attachment to distribute to Bellone’s transition team, according to an email thread obtained by Newsday.

Law, who said he was appointed Dec. 6, 2011, to chair the search committee for Suffolk police commissioner and not the chief of department spot, said Thursday that he did not recall receiving the letter.

“I don’t know why that letter would have been sent to me. Not one person ever suggested or indicated or nominated Jim Burke as a candidate for commissioner,” Law said. “Again, I was not involved at all, one iota, one conversation, about the selection for chief of police.”

In the email thread, with the subject line “Burke letter” and dated Dec. 18, 2011, Schaffer tells Spota’s assistant that he can’t find the letter she sent him. “Can you send it again? (The one Tom wrote) Thanks.” The attachment is then forwarded to Regina Calcaterra, Jon Schneider and Antonio Martinez — members of Bellone’s transition team — and cc’d to Bellone.

Asked by Newsday last week about the Spota letter, Schaffer said he could not recall one being received. Instead, Schaffer said that he introduced Burke to Bellone after Bellone was elected and that he remembered seeing the anonymous letter containing allegations against Burke but told Bellone that Burke was “a good guy.”

When told Newsday obtained the Spota letter and the email thread, Schaffer responded:

“I don’t recall it all. If I did it and it’s real, it would be because Jimmy asked me to introduce him to Bellone and it may have been based on a conversation, and again I don’t know what Tom’s letter says,” Schaffer said. “It would be just because I was asked to . . . get further information on an applicant. So when Steve took over, a million people are calling over about various positions in county government and I’m referring them over to the transition team or Steve himself. No, and I don’t remember that email either. My role would be that somebody asked me to get that information or asked me to pass it along to somebody.”

Spota’s letter does not directly address allegations that a prostitute stole Burke’s service weapon and said the allegation that Burke had been caught up in a prostitution sting in New York City was a “baseless rumor.” Spota acknowledged Burke’s service weapon was stolen “among other things during the commission of a burglary at his residence in Ronkonkoma in the early 1990’s.”

Spota wrote that “the burglary was one amongst a series of burglaries involving forcible entry into residences. The firearm was subsequently recovered after a 911 call involving a bar fight at a licensed establishment. The serial number had been obliterated.”

No mention was made of a 1995 Internal Affairs report that found Burke guilty of conduct unbecoming an officer for twice failing to safeguard his weapon, engaging in sexual acts in police vehicles and having a sexual relationship with “a convicted felon known to be actively engaged in criminal conduct including the possession and sale of illegal drugs, prostitution and larceny.”

The letter cites promotions Burke received, noting Burke’s “scoring number one” on a captain’s test. The letter said some of the promotions were made by John Gallagher and Richard Dormer, two previous police commissioners.

“In 2006 I designated Mr. Burke the Chief Investigator of the Suffolk County District Attorney’s Office as a result of a vacancy when the then Chief Investigator, former Police Commissioner Robert Creighton retired,” wrote Spota. “My reason in designating him was because of his outstanding leadership abilities which he had displayed over the prior 4 years of my administration. I never once regretted this decision.”

The anonymous letter pointed to what many people have said about Burke: that he drew his power from his decades-old relationship with Spota. Burke was 14 when Spota, as an assistant prosecutor, used Burke as his key witness to testify in the 1979 murder of 13-year-old John Pius of Smithtown.

“No one can ever speak ill of Burke to Spota, it is a strong bond,” the letter said.

Burke was appointed chief of department the month after Spota’s letter.

In October 2015, Burke left the post less than two months before federal investigators arrested him on charges stemming from his assault of Christopher Loeb, a Smithtown man who had stolen a duffel bag from Burke’s department vehicle.

Bellone told the public that he and Burke had “mutually agreed” that Burke should resign. In reality, Bellone said Burke tried to keep his job, but Bellone fired him.

Burke has since pleaded guilty to violating Loeb’s civil rights and orchestrating a departmental cover-up of it. Under the terms of the plea deal, Burke will face from 3 years and 5 months to 4 years and 3 months in prison, a term that is within suggested federal sentencing guidelines for the crimes. Had he been convicted at trial, Burke could have faced up to 20 years. He has yet to be sentenced.

Newsday has reported that the federal investigation has not ended with Burke and has extended to the district attorney’s office, where Burke worked for nearly a decade before becoming the top uniformed officer in the county.

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