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James Burke cried at meeting at Thomas Spota's home, witness says

Former Suffolk police Chief of Department James Burke

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

Burke breaks down, Part I

James Burke, during a June 2015 meeting at Thomas Spota's home, denied beating Christopher Loeb, according to testimony Wednesday.

"At one point, he started crying," testified Emily Constant, Spota's former second in command at the Suffolk district attorney's office.

"I wouldn't say he was sobbing," she went on, "he was crying."

Under questioning from Assistant U.S. Attorney Justina Geraci, Constant said Spota had asked her to leave her office in Hauppauge and drive 40 minutes to his home.

"He came into my office and said, ‘We are going to my house,’ ” she testified.

"I said, ‘What for?’ ” Constant went on, "and he said, ‘We'll talk when we get there.’ ”

Burke, then Suffolk police chief of department, and Christopher McPartland, head of Spota's anti-corruption unit, arrived at the home, too. Later, Constant said, they would be joined by William Madigan, then the police chief of detectives.

During the meeting, Burke "related that he had been out east fishing and had gotten notice that federal subpoenas had been served at police headquarters in Yaphank, both for documents and for individuals," she testified.

"Was that the topic that was discussed at the house?" Geraci asked.

"It was," Constant replied.

Burke "related that he had done nothing, that he had never touched" Loeb.

"He had a long list of grievances," she said.

"He was very upset," she said.

"He was walking in and out of Mr. Spota's kitchen, in and out of the deck, talking on the phone," said Constant.

"He was upset, repeating several times that he had done nothing wrong, that he had never touched him."

"This is payback," Constant quoted Burke as saying, because federal officials were angry he had removed detectives from a federal task force.

Burke breaks down, Part II

In October 2015, during a meeting at Constant's home, Burke broke down once more.

"He sat on my couch," Constant said, "he broke down into sobs."

"He said he was being unfairly targeted and that he had done nothing wrong."

The second home meeting — involving Spota, Constant, Madigan and McPartland — came on the day Burke was fired, Constant testified.

Spota, Constant said, walked into her office.

"He said, ‘I'm going to go meet Burke to talk to him and you should come,’ ” Constant said.

He asked for suggestions on where the meeting should place take place.

"I think we should go to my house," Constant said.

Burke was there when Constant arrived.

"He had parked his car and he was pacing around the cul-de-sac, on the phone," she said.

Once inside, "Burke related that he had been summoned to the county executive's office, that the county executive had told him that he knew he had done it, that he was going to be arrested and prosecuted and that the county executive was going to be firing him," Constant testified.

"What was the reaction?" Geraci asked.

"The general reaction was surprise and distress," Constant testified. "That about sums it up."

“ … There was just a general expression of support for Jimmy," she said.

Not a believer

When rumors arose in June 2015 that the federal government had reopened a case into the Loeb beating, those in the DA's office did not believe it, Constant said.

"We did not credit the fact the investigation was restarted," Constant said. “ … In our world, there never would have been a case conducted by one bureau, closed by one bureau and reopened by another bureau."

"We told Chief Burke he should calm down," she said, "because we didn't credit all of the rumors."

A difference of opinion

Earlier Wednesday, Patrick Cuff, a former Suffolk police chief, testified about sitting down with Burke during a 1993 internal affairs investigation.

"He looked at me across the table, and said, 'Lieutenant, I have a sterling reputation in the police department,’ ” Cuff testified.

"I was taken aback," Cuff said.

"The allegation in this case," Cuff went on, "was that Burke was performing … [a sexual act] on a crack-addicted prostitute."

Larry Krantz, McPartland's lead attorney, objected.

U.S. District Court Judge Joan Azrack sustained the objection and ordered that portion of Cuff's answer stricken from the trial record.

"I think I laughed or chuckled a little bit," Cuff went on, as testimony continued. "To be sitting across the table with allegations of this type, that's not my definition of sterling."

Angry and annoyed

Cuff recalled for jurors his feelings when, in 2005, he watched one assistant district attorney from the special investigations unit walk to the front of a courtroom and tell a judge that the district attorney's office wanted to take a gun-related case against Cuff's son to a grand jury — a move that could turn a misdemeanor charge against the young adult into a felony.

"I was fuming," Cuff said.

"I knew, right then and there, that Jimmy Burke … ”

Cuff was cut off mid-sentence by an objection, which Azrack sustained.

"It was very emotional," Cuff went on. "I was very angry."

Fast-tracked

When he returned to his office, Cuff said, former Suffolk Det. James Hickey came to see him.

Cuff said he relayed what had happened with his son in court, knowing full well that Hickey was close to Burke.

"Talking to James Hickey was like having James Burke in the room," Cuff testified.

In earlier testimony, Hickey had said he immediately took word of Cuff's woes to Burke — who considered Cuff an enemy.

Hickey did so, he testified, to win favor with Burke.

It seemed to have worked.

"It was a matter of weeks," Cuff testified, "that they promoted him [Hickey] to detective lieutenant."

Looming change

Late one morning in November 2011, Madigan, a friend of Burke's, walked into an area where Cuff and other chiefs worked in Yaphank.

"He came into our office area and proclaimed that ‘come January, there's gonna be a lot of changes around here,’ ” Cuff testified.

"He was, like, three or four ranks below me," Cuff said. "It was one of the most arrogant things, disgusting."

Four steps down

Madigan turned out to be right.

A month later, Cuff was given the option to retire — or be busted down four ranks to captain.

"Were you given any reason why you were demoted?" Assistant U.S. Attorney Lara Treinis Gatz asked.

"No," Cuff replied.

"Could you have been demoted any lower than that?" Gatz asked.

"No," Cuff replied. "That's a Civil Service ranking, that was as low as he could demote."

Cuff had other duties that ended with the demotion, he said.

He no longer taught at the county police academy. And Cuff, the longest-serving Spanish-speaking officer, was no longer liaison with Suffolk's Latino community — at a time when the department was under fire from federal officials for discriminatory policing of Hispanics.

Gatz asked whether Cuff suffered financially because of the demotion.

"There was over $670,000 that I lost," Cuff testified. 

Man of the Year

John Meehan, a former Suffolk police officer, was asked about a police reserves awards dinner in 2012.

"James Burke told me he was going to be recognized … as Man of the Year," Meehan testified.

"Had the award ever been given before?" Assistant U.S. Attorney Michael Maffei asked.

"No," Meehan answered.

Spota presented the award, Meehan testified, and at some point during his speech said "how proud he was."

Spota, Meehan testified, said people had warned him about Burke, "telling me James Burke was not the right man for the job" of heading the district attorney's investigative units.

"They were wrong," Meehan quoted Spota as saying, "and I was right."

More rumors

In December 2012, about a week after Loeb was assaulted, Burke talked to Meehan about rumors.

"You may start hearing rumors about me," Meehan quoted Burke as saying.

"That he beat up a prisoner," Meehan went on, "and that he had kiddie porn in the car."

"It's … [expletive]," Burke said, according to the testimony, “ … I'm just telling you in case you hear it."

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