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Suffolk County leaders needs to clear the air over James Burke scandal

Former Suffolk County police chief of department

Former Suffolk County police chief of department James Burke is escorted to a vehicle by FBI personnel outside an FBI office in Melville on Wednesday, Dec. 9, 2015. Credit: Steve Pfost

Christopher Loeb of Smithtown stole a duffle bag in 2012, and inadvertently exposed a Suffolk County government scandal.

The owner of that duffle bag was James Burke, the disgraced former county police chief who is in a federal jail awaiting trial on charges of assaulting a handcuffed suspect and conspiring to cover it up. The Suffolk district attorney’s anti-corruption chief, Christopher McPartland, is the subject of a federal grand jury investigation. And concerns remain about whether the county prosecutor and county executive played a role in the controversy involving Loeb, who pleaded guilty to stealing the bag, and was sentenced to 3 years in prison before his release in July.

In 2011, Democratic District Attorney Thomas Spota forced Democrat-turned-Republican County Executive Steve Levy out of office after an investigation by McPartland and Burke. Although few details about the probe were released, under a deal with Spota’s office, Levy was not permitted to seek re-election and had to return $4 million in campaign contributions despite never being charged.

Levy’s ousting paved the way for then-Babylon Supervisor Steve Bellone to run for county executive. Fueled by campaign donations from law enforcement unions opposed to Levy, Bellone was a shoo-in to succeed Levy. Once in office, Bellone named Burke chief, even before a police commissioner was in place.

“Any person that I would select to be commissioner would love Jim Burke,” Bellone said at the time. According to Bellone, Burke’s appointment came at Spota’s recommendation.

When we look back, knowing what we do now, this is disturbing. Bellone claims he had no knowledge that Burke had a history of misconduct when he promoted him. But the misconduct was common knowledge among many in county government — a substantiated complaint of having sex with a prostitute, while on duty, and in a police vehicle. No vetting was done?

Moreover, Bellone and the Democratic-controlled Suffolk legislature supported Burke even after his past became public and continued to stand by him up until his resignation in October amid the most recent federal investigation.

Newsday has reported that sources told the paper the district attorney’s office, through McPartland, requested Burke’s Internal Affairs file from the police department before Burke took over as chief. Why? And, what are we to think about the district attorney’s anti-corruption unit led by McPartland? In recent years, the unit’s investigations in Bellone’s hometown of Babylon appear to have been restricted to the review of Suffolk Industrial Development Agency nominee Robert Stricoff, whose case was opened by the district attorney after prompting by Suffolk Democratic chairman and current Babylon Town Supervisor Richard Schaffer. Stricoff has said he withdrew from consideration after a probe into his use of funds from the Babylon Town Democratic Party, which he once led as chairman.

With each day, more questions arise, but the path toward answers leads to Spota, Bellone and Schaffer. Thus far, Spota and Bellone have largely declined to comment on these questions or have relied on staff members to tap dance their way around inquiries. Schaffer has been able to deflect attention to this point. Sooner or later, Spota, Bellone and Schaffer will have to answer. And, the answers had better be good enough to change the troubling picture being portrayed by federal prosecutors and the media.

The people’s faith hangs in the balance, and once that is lost, it’s time for them to step down.

Robert Trotta, a retired Suffolk County police detective, is a Republican county legislator.