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Storm rising at highest levels of Suffolk government

Former Suffolk County police department chief James Burke,

Former Suffolk County police department chief James Burke, left, with Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone near command post on Manor Road in Manorville on April 10, 2012. Photo Credit: James Carbone

The hurricane about to hit Suffolk County is still offshore, but the winds are getting stronger, the pressure is rising and the eye is taking shape. When it will hit is unknown, but its path is clear: It’s targeting the county’s law enforcement and political communities.

There is no other context for what happened last week, a political drama bookended by two Newsday front-page stories about who’s to blame for the hiring of James Burke as chief of police. Newsday reported at the start of the week that just after Steve Bellone first won election in 2011 as county executive, he received an anonymous letter that said it was from members of the police department. It warned him about Burke’s history of misdeeds.

Bellone tried to deflect the notion that he had early warnings about Burke, dismissing the letter as unsigned and saying he did his due diligence by asking District Attorney Thomas Spota about the claims. Spota was the one person in the universe guaranteed to vouch for Burke. After all, Burke had been on Spota’s payroll for 10 years as a top aide and considered the district attorney a father figure. Even the anonymous letter writers gave Bellone a flashing red light on that move. “No one can ever speak ill of Burke to Spota, it is a strong bond,” they wrote.

Bellone said he didn’t even ask Burke about the allegations in an interview with him for the chief’s job, nor did he as incoming county executive attempt to review Burke’s personnel file, which contained a damning internal affairs report.

That’s why Bellone cannot escape the ball-and-chain of having hired Burke by blaming it on Spota. And it certainly doesn’t explain why Bellone stuck by Burke after revelations about the officer’s past misdeeds, or after Burke was accused of beating a suspect in custody in 2012. Eventually, federal prosecutors indicted Burke in the assault as well as a cover-up, charges he pleaded guilty to in February.

On Friday, Newsday published another letter from the same period, this one written by Spota to Bellone’s transition team, lauding Burke’s credentials, saying he trusted Burke to oversee all law enforcement operations in the prosecutor’s office for a decade.

So the week ended in a draw for Bellone and Spota, both of whom should be embarrassed by the stories. Emerging unscathed so far in this internecine war among powerful Suffolk Democrats is Rich Schaffer, the county party leader, but make no mistake, he’s got a battle plan.

In 2014, Schaffer asked Spota to investigate Robert Stricoff, then chair of the Babylon Town Democrats, a close ally of Bellone and his chief fundraiser. All of a sudden, Schaffer was concerned that Stricoff might have been improperly enriching himself from party coffers. It might have had nothing to do with efforts by Bellone and Stricoff to challenge Schaffer’s party leadership, or maybe it did. Spota kept the case open all this time and suddenly, last month, transferred it to the top investigator for the state Board of Elections. Any findings by the state agency against Stricoff could, at the very least, embarrass Bellone.

That hurricane on the horizon is the intensifying investigation by federal prosecutors who have informed Christopher McPartland, Spota’s chief of investigations, that he is a target of their probe. The sandbags are being piled high but the damage will be extensive.— The editorial board

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