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Former Suffolk County Police Chief James Burke testifying before the county legislature in 2013. Photo: Denise Civiletti

“A Chief’s Fall From Power, Lawman’s Arrest Jolts a Long Island Political Machine,” was the headline of an extensive article starting on the front page in The New York Times last month focusing on the indictment of James Burke, the former chief of the Suffolk County Police Department.

2015_1024_suffolk_closeup_grossmanIt is a rarity—in fact I don’t remember it ever happening—for the nation’s leading newspaper to give such prominent treatment to law enforcement in Suffolk County.

Another national journal, Newsweek, has provided similar attention: “Bad Cop, Worse Cop: James Burke and the Overwhelming Stench of Corruption in Suffolk County,” was its headline.

“Burke’s arrest last month on assault and conspiracy charges could be more than just the story of a rogue police chief finally corralled,” declared the Newsweek piece. “It may also open a window onto the widespread corruption that some say has long festered in this large suburban county on the eastern half of New York’s Long Island. Federal prosecutors are probing whether the local police department and the district attorney’s office are corrupt — including whether judgeships are for sale — and they are also investigating an incident in which the DA’s office listened to federal agents on a wiretap…”

What is happening? Much of what has been happening and will happen is unclear.

What is clear is that Mr. Burke, who had been the Suffolk police department’s top uniformed officer until he retired in October, is in big trouble, and that there has been anger in the U.S. Attorney’s office toward the Suffolk DA’s office.

Suffolk DA Tom Spota has been a popular DA, independent—first elected in 2001, and winning re-elections by acclamation, with support of both major parties and minor parties.

Mr. Burke was indicted in December for violating the civil rights of a suspect who stole a duffel bag from his police SUV, which as the Times noted, “contained cigars and the chief’s gun belt, as well as pornographic DVDs and sex toys, according to federal prosecutors.”

Mr. Burke allegedly beat the shackled suspect in a Suffolk Police station house after he called him “a pervert” and the chief then “went out of control,” said the Times, again citing federal prosecutors. The thief, Christopher Loeb, was subsequently convicted of the theft and jailed.

Mr. Burke was also indicted for allegedly arranging a cover-up of the attack with other police officers. Mr. Burke has been held without bail since U.S. District Court Judge Leonard Wexler agreed with federal prosecutors in December that he was involved in “the corruption of an entire department.” The Times article said by holding him in jail “the prosecution seemed to be trying to isolate Mr. Burke, a tactic often intended to pressure defendants into cooperating with a federal investigation.”

But who might Mr. Burke be used against?

Before becoming police chief in 2012, Mr. Burke ran the detective squad in the Suffolk DA’s office. He was then close to Mr. Spota.

The U.S. Attorney’s office has been upset with the Suffolk DA’s office since Mr. Burke as police chief in 2012 pulled Suffolk Police detectives off a federal task force. One of those detectives, John Oliva, went to Newsday with information and also complained to FBI agents and federal prosecutors— conversations intercepted by a wiretap of Mr. Oliva by the Suffolk DA’s office.

The Times quoted “one person familiar with the episode” as saying then-U.S. Attorney Loretta Lynch was “not happy that these Suffolk prosecutors are listening into federal agents talking about federal cases.” Mr. Spota’s “top prosecutors” went to the U.S. Attorney’s office in Brooklyn “to explain” but the “conversation went poorly.”

So where does it go from here?

Is this largely a matter of a prosecutor’s office on the federal level in a nasty squabble with a prosecutor’s office on the county level? Moreover, Ms. Lynch is now U.S. attorney general — in charge of all U.S. Attorneys’ offices including the one in Brooklyn that covers Suffolk and the rest of what’s called the Eastern District. What will the impact be on that office with her now being the nation’s top prosecutor? Or does what’s been happening and will happen involve a broader federal investigation into, indeed, “widespread corruption” in Suffolk?

Newsday has raised the issue of the Burke mess casting “a shadow over” County Executive Steve Bellone who appointed him chief. Newsday has reported that “a 1995 police internal affairs report said Burke, as a patrol officer, twice lost his police-issued service weapon at the same time that he carried on a sexual relationship with a woman who had a criminal record.” Newsday questioned whether Mr. Bellone did “adequate vetting of Burke before he named him chief.”

Something else is clear: Mr. Burke has been a Nixonian figure in the Suffolk law enforcement system— someone with enemies lists and vendettas. How might that play out with the former chief sitting in jail pending a trial next month?

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