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'Burke was fearful that I was cooperating,' ex-officer says

James Burke, former Suffolk police chief of department,

James Burke, former Suffolk police chief of department, is taken into FBI custody in 2015. Credit: James Carbone

Fearing for his life

On the day in 2015 that former Suffolk police Lt. James Hickey was served with a federal subpoena, he said, former police Chief of Department James Burke walked into the office where Hickey was meeting with union officials.

On the way out, Hickey testified, "Burke told me we need to talk."

Hickey said he told Burke that Hickey would decide where that meeting took place.

"He was driving a car I didn't recognize and I was concerned for my safety," Hickey testified Monday in the trial of Thomas Spota, Suffolk's former district attorney, and Christopher McPartland, who ran Spota's anti-corruption division.

"I was concerned for my safety and I wanted to go someplace where there were people," he said, noting that the pair eventually ended up at a nearby restaurant parking lot.

"Why were you concerned?" Assistant U.S. Attorney Lara Treinis Gatz asked.

"Because I knew Burke was fearful that I was cooperating or was going to cooperate," Hickey said, "and going by his demeanor and knowing him, I was very concerned that he would kill me."

"He was scared like I'd never seen him before," Hickey said, "very, very scared."

Lawyer qualifications

Once Hickey realized that he could face criminal charges, he wanted a very specific kind of lawyer. Someone, Hickey testified, who was "familiar with the Suffolk County culture."

"Someone," he continued, "who would understand what I was up against in Suffolk County, where the police chief, the district attorney and the unions all operate as one."

"I was looking for someone who … understands how it operates out here," Hickey testified.

For the defense

Hickey said that, at one point, he agreed to give defense attorneys for Spota and McPartland notes that he made before speaking to his own lawyers, and to federal prosecutors.

The notes, Hickey said, detailed the cover-up of Christopher Loeb's assault and everyone's role in it, including his own.

"Why did you do that," Gatz asked, referring to Hickey's signing off on his notes going to attorneys for Spota and McPartland.

"Because I knew that what I told my attorneys was the truth," Hickey testified, "that what I told the government was the truth and that what I am saying now is the truth."

During cross-examination, Larry Krantz, McPartland's lead attorney, returned to the subject of those notes, repeatedly pressing Hickey on his motivation for becoming a cooperating witness.

"Was it your personal hope that you would not be charged?" Krantz asked — repeatedly pressing for a yes or no answer.

"Yes, that I would not get charged," Hickey — finally — conceded.

"Yes," Hickey said.

Time after timeline

Burke told Hickey about a meeting he had with Steve Bellone, Suffolk's county executive, before Burke retired in 2016.

"He told me that Bellone had forced him to retire," Hickey said, "that he had been 'fired,' his term."

In earlier testimony, Hickey said that Burke carried around with him a copy of a timeline that Burke contended proved that federal prosecutors were out to get him because he had removed Suffolk detectives from a federal task force.

At Burke's meeting with Bellone, however, "he said Bellone laughed at his timeline that he was carrying."

"Bellone told Burke that he knew he had beaten Loeb," Hickey said.

Badge of honor

Jurors learned Monday about Hickey's internal affairs investigation file. And that he had pleaded guilty, as part of an agreement, to one department charge involving radio communications.

Hickey said Burke knew about the investigation — and about former Suffolk Judge Stuart Namm's 1992 decision to dismiss a case, in part, because he found then-police Officer Hickey's testimony to be unreliable. 

"Did Thomas Spota know?" Gatz asked.

"Yes," Hickey replied.

"Did Christopher McPartland know?" Gatz asked.

"Yes," he replied.

"We talked about it all the time," he went on. "Tom Spota viewed it as a badge of honor because the same judge had been critical of him."

In 2014, Namm published a book, "A Whistleblower's Lament: The Perverted Pursuit of Justice in the State of New York," in which the former judge wrote of his evolution from a law-and-order judge known as "Maximum Stu" to a judge so skeptical of law enforcement's willingness to tell the truth that the Suffolk District Attorney's Office filed motions seeking to remove him from cases.

Getting kicks

"How's the kickline going?" Burke wrote Hickey, according to one of several text exchanges flashed on the big courtroom screen.

"We are still here," Hickey replied.

He was at a high school to give a daughter, who was leading a kickline, support.

But, he testified, the back-and-forth with Burke had nothing to do with that.

Burke, in asking about the kickline, was asking whether three detectives who with Burke had assaulted Loeb were still covering things up.

Hickey's reply meant yes, he testified.

That made Burke happy.

"I want to root her on!" Burke wrote in reply.

"She's such a good kid."

Party on, Part I

Hickey said that he, Spota, McPartland and others twice celebrated at the expense of one of "The Administration's" enemies: Patrick Cuff, a former Suffolk police commander who had handled an internal affairs case against Burke in 1993.

Hickey said he walked into Cuff's office in September 2005 to find the commander crying. Cuff said his son had been arrested on a misdemeanor charge for taking his firearm and showing it off, but that at arraignment, the assistant district attorney handling the case had swapped with another ADA, who said the office wanted the charge upgraded to a felony.

Hickey said he called Burke with the news.

"He said, ‘Hang up, let me get Spota and McPartland on the phone,’ ” Hickey testified. “ ‘This is great.’ ”

"I know they were responsible," he said of Spota and McPartland.

"Because they were the only two guys who could do it," he said. "Burke couldn't."

"Was it cause for celebration?" Gatz asked.

"Yes," Hickey replied. "It was celebratory."

"Celebratory?" Gatz pressed.

"Yes," Hickey replied. "We were all laughing."

"Did they know Cuff had been crying?" Gatz asked.

"Yes," Hickey testified.

Cuff's son would plead to a misdemeanor, according to the testimony.

Hickey would receive a promotion.

Party on, Part II

Soon after Burke was named chief of department, Cuff was busted four ranks down to captain.

"Mr. Cuff was demoted for something that happened in 1993?" Gatz asked.

"Yes," Hickey replied.

"Was there a celebration?" Gatz asked.

"Yeah," Hickey replied, "We had a demotion party at Butterfield's."

Are demotion parties a usual occurrence? Gatz asked.

"No," Hickey answered. "It's usually a promotion party."

The wire

John Oliva, a former Suffolk detective, was in the overflow courtroom when he heard Hickey’s testimony about a January 2014 meeting he attended during which Burke, Spota, McPartland and William Madigan, Suffolk's former chief of detectives, devised a plan to retaliate against Oliva.

They were angry, Hickey said, because Oliva had leaked stories to Newsday about the impact of Burke’s decision to remove Suffolk detectives from a federal task force, and about a series of robberies.

McPartland, Hickey testified, suggested using phone records to see who Oliva was talking to.

Hickey did not object. “It was not my place,” he said. “It would have been career suicide to object to that.”

Ultimately, Hickey testified, the decision was made to wiretap Oliva’s phones.

But first, he testified, the group concocted a story about officer safety to justify the move.

“It had nothing to do with officer safety,” Hickey said. “It was cover story we could use to get up on a wire.”

Spota, he testified, authorized the wiretap, which, with extensions approved by a judge, was in place for three months.

By spring, he said, Madigan told him they had enough to file a felony charge against Oliva — because of information in another story leaked to Newsday.

Madigan said they wanted the charge filed before June so Oliva, after more than 19 years on the job, would lose his pension.

“It would be devastating financially,” Hickey testified, “It would hurt his family, it would ruin his career.”

Oliva did get his pension. And the DA’s office allowed him, in September, to plead guilty to a misdemeanor rather than a felony.

Why the deal? Gatz asked.

Pressing the felony charge would have meant releasing transcripts of the wiretaps, Hickey said, which no one wanted to do.

“That,” he testified, “would be embarrassing to Burke."

In testimony on Monday, Hickey was asked to read aloud a series of text messages that circulated among nine people, including Hickey, Burke and Noel DiGerolamo, Suffolk's Police Benevolent Association president, about a story on Burke in Newsday.

At one point, Burke and another texter referred to a Newsday reporter in vulgar terms, before discussion veered off into criticism of a county attorney representing Burke in a civil suit filed by Loeb — before returning back to Newsday's coverage of Burke.

"Look at the bright side, Jim," one message read.

"No photos."

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