Suffolk Police Chief James Burke is escorted to a vehicle by FBI personnel outside an FBI office in Melville in Dec. 2015, after his arrest on federal charges that he beat a suspect who stole sex toys and pornography from his SUV. File photo: Steve Pfost/Newsday via AP.

Interesting things happen when law firms and politics mix. It’s a frequent, sometimes unseemly combination we barely notice. Is that because we’re too busy paying for it? But once in a while, a big shot law firm, in the habit of big donations to big-time politicians, suddenly appears on our radar. That’s when we’re favored with a rare glimpse into those hallowed heights where the in-crowd dwells.

By way of background in one such episode, recall that the chief of department for Suffolk’s PD was sentenced to jail, not only for beating an arrested burglary suspect (who had burglarized the chief’s personally owned vehicle), but also for participating with other PD brass, in misguided loyalty to him, in a clumsy coverup of the incident.

The ex-chief, a protege of the then-district attorney, was a rising star in law enforcement circles. When the current county executive was first elected in 2011, he quickly appointed a police commish, who just as quickly appointed this rising star to be the county PD chief.

Soon many regarded the police commish as a figurehead, and the PD chief, whom the county exec held in the highest esteem, as the one in charge. When the police chief crashed and burned, however, it was a huge political problem for the county exec. So he immediately targeted the district attorney, the chief’s mentor, who had pressed hard for his protege’s appointment.

The county exec and his handlers were reeling over his PD chief’s conviction of federal charges in the coverup of his assault of the burglar. Coping with it as many politicians would, i.e. change the subject, the county exec set off an explosive, public feud with the county DA. Not long after that, the DA resigned after he was himself indicted on federal charges. To this day, the now ex-DA awaits trial for allegedly running official interference for the PD chief during his troubles.

Meanwhile, the burglar defendant, who had broken into the chief’s SUV and took a beating for it while handcuffed, soon became a plaintiff. He recovered $1.5 million from the Suffolk County taxpayers as a settlement of his lawsuit against them (us).

Then, last December, the after-shock continued with a bill sponsored by some Republicans in the county legislature. Their proposal directed the county to sue the ex-chief personally, to recover the $1.5 million, or at least to get a judgment against him for that amount to collect in the future. For their part, the Democratic legislators and their county exec were agitated by this bill. This was quite apparent at the committee where this “indemnification” bill was assigned. So after a quick song and dance by the county attorney, who acts as the county exec’s lawyer, the bill was dutifully and unceremoniously tabled into oblivion by all the committee’s Democratic members.

Undaunted, this bill’s Republican sponsor came up with another proposal to recover the taxpayers’ hefty loss in this episode: hire outside counsel (having the county attorney do it would obviously not be a good idea) to recover the salary and benefits from the ex-chief based on his conviction, under the “faithless servant” doctrine.

This is a legal theory with considerable merit, allowing employers to withhold pay and benefits paid during the timeframe when employees are involved in illegal activity. Tabling it in committee after a song and dance wouldn’t work this time, even though the county attorney, at least initially, expressed discomfort with this bill as well.

So the county power elite came up with a more subtle approach to address this latest annoyance. First they routed this unwelcome proposal for outside counsel through a “waiver” process. This could fly because the county had started what they called a “competitive” solicitation of law firms — 22 in all, they said — though only three replied. Then two of those three firms swiftly bailed out. Why? They learned, oddly not until this late stage in the “competitive” process, that they would only be paid if they won anything in this claim — a typical, contingent fee arrangement. Why did they not know till then?

And guess which legal team was the only one left? Why, none other than a Nassau county-based law firm whose partners have been generous donors to the county exec’s election campaigns— to the tune of nearly $30,000? With such an appearance of impropriety, you would think they would back away from a politically charged case like this. On the contrary, on March 26, a week after the county sent out the solicitations to all the law firms, this law firm’s lead partner donated another $5,000 to the county exec’s upcoming re-election campaign, according to state campaign finance disclosure reports. In a “competitive” selection process, is that a way to get noticed?

This law firm had emerged once before on our radar, when the Riverhead Town supervisor suggested that they be hired to review the EPCAL sale contract. Rightfully suspicious, the Republican Town Board majority turned them down, to their credit, and then came up with an outside firm of their own — all at a snail’s pace, by the way.

When it comes to the political mess of the county’s ex-chief’s saga, the county’s Democratic in-crowd is in no hurry to pursue any claims or cause any publicity. So why don’t they start all over again with soliciting law firms? They insist that the law firm where their political friends dwell is the only one they could find willing to take the case on the contingent fee terms. Still, starting over makes sense, from at least an ethical standpoint.

Is the law firm’s political loyalty so intense that they would ignore — as the county’s in-crowd has ignored — the claim by the county legislature’s minority leader that their being hired is “a clear conflict of interest?”

Maybe this clever little game will slow things down — way down — till after this November’s election. Could that be one explanation for this intrigue behind the scenes: a friendly law firm is easier to ask favors beyond their hefty donations? And one favor the county exec could certainly benefit from is keeping all mention of the ex-chief off the table for now. Could one way to do that be keeping further court drama on hold, with lengthy delays?

We don’t know if the law firm would go out of their way to do the county exec’s bidding. But they are already heavily invested, with their own money — and lots of it — in the county exec’s political future. And his future is on the line these next few months.

This story is free to read thanks in part to the generous support of readers like you. Keep local news free. Become a member today.

SHARE
Greg Blass
Greg has spent his life in public service since he enlisted in the U.S. Navy as a teenager. He is a former Suffolk County Family Court judge, six-term Suffolk County legislator and commissioner of Social Services. Now retired, Greg is active in volunteer work and is a board member of several charities. He lives in Jamesport. Email Greg