Ex-Suffolk County Police Chief’s Arrest Comes Amid a Broader Federal Inquiry

By JOSEPH GOLDSTEIN, January 3, 2016

James Burke, center, the former Suffolk County police chief, was arrested last month on charges of civil rights violations and obstructing an investigation. Credit Newsday

Even today the crime is remembered, with a shudder, across Long Island.

Hidden in the woods in Smithtown, N.Y., a boy’s battered body was found with six rocks jammed down his throat.

The prosecution’s key witnesses included a teenager named James Burke, whose testimony against his neighborhood friends helped send them to prison.

The murder happened in 1979, and the case began Mr. Burke’s involvement with law enforcement. He grew up to become a police officer and, later, the top investigator in the Suffolk County district attorney’s office. Eventually, he was named chief of the county police, a department of 2,300 officers, where he cut a swaggering, backslapping figure: a gregarious lawman with a bushy mustache that seemed in constant danger from the cigars he smoked.

The striking back story of Mr. Burke’s rise is matched only by the narrative of his sudden and tawdry fall. Since last month, he has been held in a federal jail on charges of violating a thief’s civil rights after a duffel bag — containing pornography, sex toys and cigars — was stolen from Mr. Burke’s sport utility vehicle in 2012. When the thief was arrested shortly after the break-in, Mr. Burke, 51, barged in on the interrogation and punched him, then persuaded his officers to cover for him by lying about the episode, a federal indictment says.

Mr. Burke’s home in Smithtown, N.Y., the suburban community on Long Island where he grew up. Credit Richard Perry/The New York Times

The case is explosive, not just for its tabloid-ready details, but because it comes at the same time as a broader federal investigation of the Suffolk County political machine and its hold over the local criminal justice system.

The investigation is casting a spotlight on an unusual alliance that, strangely enough, dates back to the 1979 murder case of the boy with rocks in his throat. That trial, in addition to starting Mr. Burke toward a career in law enforcement, burnished the reputation of the prosecutor, Thomas J. Spota, a Democrat who has been Suffolk County’s district attorney since 2002.

Mr. Spota kept in touch with Mr. Burke, and after he was elected district attorney, hired him as his top investigator and eventually helped him become the county police chief in 2012. The scope of the federal investigation could mean Mr. Spota’s long alliance with Mr. Burke will come back to haunt him.

Wielding Outsize Power

For federal investigators, an outline is beginning to emerge of a police department and a district attorney’s office that have worked together to consolidate the power of Mr. Burke and Mr. Spota, and have relied on questionable surveillance methods to keep tabs on enemies real and imagined.

No charges have been filed against Mr. Spota or his staff, and the Justice Department has not made public the nature of the investigation or whether it has found evidence of any crime.

Interviews with people who have been questioned by Federal Bureau of Investigation agents, or who are cooperating with their inquiry, suggest it is turning into an examination of the police and prosecutor’s outsize, unchecked power in their domain, the eastern half of Long Island, where glaring poverty and fantastic riches exist side by side. Federal investigators appear to be pursuing leads that broadly explore questions of influence and corruption in the criminal justice system. One avenue of inquiry has led agents to seek evidence about whether judgeships are for sale in Suffolk County, according to two people with knowledge of the inquiries.

The United States attorney’s office in Brooklyn, which is overseeing the investigation, has also taken a dim view of some of the surveillance practices employed by the Suffolk County district attorney’s office.

One questionable episode involved a Suffolk County wiretap in which the district attorney’s office listened in on phone calls involving at least a half-dozen F.B.I. agents and assistant United States attorneys, according to three people who have been told about the event. In another episode, a contractor for the district attorney’s office installed a GPS device on a deputy police commissioner’s car at Mr. Burke’s request, in order “to dig up blackmail dirt on her,” a federal prosecutor, James Miskiewicz, said last month in a federal court hearing shortly after Mr. Burke was arrested.

Mr. Spota has denied any knowledge of the episode involving the tracking device. Mr. Miskiewicz called the event “something out of the K.G.B.”

Such comparisons are common in Suffolk County, where officers wield not only police power, but also a degree of political power that would feel foreign in the police departments of most big cities. In Suffolk County, policing is not a middle-class job — officers can make $125,000 in base pay, about $50,000 more than their counterparts in New York City. That figure does not include overtime pay, which can be substantial, or the extra money officers receive for each year on the job. Detectives and sergeants have been known to earn more than $200,000 a year. The police unions on Long Island are so wealthy they have formed a “super PAC” to flood local elections with campaign donations.

Central to the political order is the district attorney, Mr. Spota. In the past year, Justice Department officials have met with county employees, politicians and former police officers who have said that Suffolk County investigations and prosecutions — as well as decisions not to prosecute — are often swayed by political considerations, according to interviews with more than five people who have spoken to F.B.I. agents or prosecutors.

In one 2011 incident, the county’s top elected official, Steve Levy, announced he would not seek re-election as part of a deal with Mr. Spota to resolve a campaign finance investigation. The details of any possible wrongdoing by Mr. Levy remain a mystery.


Thomas J. Spota, the Suffolk County district attorney, hired Mr. Burke as his top investigator and, eventually, helped him become county police chief in 2012. Credit Kathy Kmonicek/Associated Press

That cleared the stage for Mr. Burke’s rise. When Mr. Levy’s successor as Suffolk County executive, Steve Bellone, was elected, Mr. Spota recommended Mr. Burke, then working for the district attorney, for the police chief’s job, county officials said. Although Mr. Burke would technically be subordinate to a civilian police commissioner, it was clear who was in charge.

“Any person that I would select as commissioner would love Jim Burke,” Mr. Bellone, a Democrat, told Newsday four years ago as he was conducting a search for a commissioner. “And if they don’t, then they wouldn’t match up with the kind of commissioner that I want.”

No Friend of the F.B.I.

Mr. Burke was a curious choice to run the department. He had a reckless streak. Twenty years ago, as a sergeant, he had had a sexual relationship with a prostitute, according to an internal affairs investigation that accused Mr. Burke of accidentally leaving his handgun with the woman, Newsday reported.

Such an episode would have been a career-ender for most officers. But Mr. Burke — an aggressive young officer whom other officers, part admiringly and part mockingly, called Starsky after a member of the crime-fighting team in a 1970s television show — survived unscathed. Not much later, Mr. Burke was named his precinct’s officer of the year.

As police chief, Mr. Burke had a tendency to divide the world into good guys and enemies, with good-guy status going only to those in his circle.

“To me, there is no better barometer of a person’s integrity than to wind up at the top of Burke’s enemy list,” a former Suffolk County police commander, Patrick Cuff, said in a recent telephone interview. “I know I’m somewhere on it.”

When Mr. Burke took charge of the Suffolk County Police Department, he demoted Mr. Cuff to captain from assistant chief, a move apparently driven by ancient animosity between the two men. When Mr. Cuff later retired, Mr. Burke texted several subordinates with an unusual request.

“We need a friendly to go to Cuffs retirement party to take accurate attendance,” Mr. Burke wrote in a message obtained by federal prosecutors. “Whoever goes has to be able to recognize faces. Enemies, bosses active and retired and politicians.”

High on the enemies list, apparently, was the F.B.I. Mr. Burke pulled most of his detectives off federal task forces in 2012, an order that came through while one of those being recalled was in the middle of taking a murder confession. Back with their old squads, the detectives found themselves out of favor. One, a respected gang investigator, John Oliva, came under suspicion of leaking information to a Newsday reporter. In an extreme step, the district attorney’s office began to wiretap Detective Oliva, two former law enforcement officials said.

The wiretap intercepted countless conversations in which the detective spoke with F.B.I. agents and prosecutors about some of the investigations he had been pulled from. Required to provide notification, Mr. Spota’s top prosecutors went to the United States attorney in Brooklyn, Loretta E. Lynch, who is now the United States attorney general, to explain that they had overheard Justice Department officials talking.

The conversation went poorly, according to three people who have heard about it from Justice Department officials. These people said the county prosecutors had been unapologetic, even as it emerged that they had listened in on conversations that had little to do with the leak investigation. Moreover, the prosecutors appeared to have failed to shut down the wiretap during conversations that had nothing to do with any suspected criminal activity, as is typically required.

Mr. Spota, in a statement sent by email, said his office complied with the relevant rules and restrictions on wiretaps at all times.


An undated photo of Christopher Loeb, who stole a duffel bag from Mr. Burke’s sport utility vehicle in 2012 and was arrested shortly after. A federal indictment says Mr. Burke, who was police chief at the time, punched Mr. Loeb during an interrogation, then tried to cover up the episode. Credit Suffolk County Sheriff Department

But one person familiar with the episode said Ms. Lynch was “not happy that these Suffolk prosectors are listening into federal agents talking about federal cases.” This person said the episode had raised suspicions about whether the wiretap was mainly being used to learn what detectives were saying privately about Mr. Burke and to discover whether federal agents were having any success building a case against him.

Interrogation Rampage

If anything, this person said, the meeting with state prosecutors lent a new urgency to an existing, but faltering, federal investigation into Mr. Burke. That inquiry, opened in April 2013, had examined whether Mr. Burke violated the civil rights of Christopher Loeb, a heroin addict who financed his $100-a-day habit by breaking into cars.

It was Mr. Loeb’s bad luck — and, ultimately, Mr. Burke’s even worse luck — that Mr. Loeb spotted a black duffel bag in a GMC Yukon that belonged to Mr. Burke.

The duffel bag contained cigars and the chief’s gun belt, as well as pornographic DVDs and sex toys, federal prosecutors said.

Mr. Loeb was arrested, brought to the precinct and shackled to the floor of an interrogation room.

When he asked for a lawyer, one detective told him, “This isn’t ‘Law & Order’; you’re not going to get an attorney,” Mr. Loeb’s testimony in a 2013 state court hearing showed.

At some point, the chief interrupted the interrogation.

“Chief Burke grabbed me by my cheeks and hit me on the top of my head,” Mr. Loeb, who was sentenced to prison for up to three years, testified. Mr. Loeb responded by calling Mr. Burke “a pervert” and berating him for the pornography, federal prosecutors said, adding that Mr. Burke “went out of control, screaming and cursing at Loeb and assaulting him until a detective finally said, ‘Boss, that’s enough, that’s enough.’”

Months later, Newsday was reporting on the episode and F.B.I. agents were investigating it. Mr. Burke began pressing officers to lie about what had occurred, federal prosecutors claim.

In federal court last month, prosecutors claimed to have a strong hand, saying they had secured testimony from 10 police officers against Mr. Burke. In an unexpected development, a judge agreed with prosecutors that Mr. Burke, despite retiring in the fall, posed a danger to the community and ordered that he be denied bail.

The prosecution seemed to be trying to isolate Mr. Burke, a tactic often intended to pressure defendants into cooperating with a federal investigation.

Mr. Burke has entered a not guilty plea, and his lawyer, Joseph R. Conway, said Mr. Burke was not cooperating with the Justice Department.

Still, the possibility that he might try to strike a deal is a main topic of speculation among Suffolk County politicians these days. And many remember how Mr. Burke got his start in public life: as a witness in a sensational case.
Correction: January 4, 2016
Because of an editing error, an earlier version of a picture caption with this article misidentified the location of Smithtown, N.Y., where James Burke lives. It is on the North Shore of Long Island, not on the East End.
Correction: January 6, 2016

Because of an editing error, an article on Monday about James Burke, the former police chief of Suffolk County, N.Y., who is being held in jail on charges of violating a thief’s civil rights, referred incompletely in some copies to the area that Mr. Burke oversaw as police chief. It was all of Suffolk County, not just the East End.

Al Baker contributed reporting.

A version of this article appears in print on January 4, 2016, on page A1 of the New York edition with the headline: A Chief’s Fall From Power .

JOSEPH GOLDSTEIN, “Ex-Suffolk County Police Chief’s Arrest Comes Amid a Broader Federal Inquiry”, January 3, 2016, The New York Times, http://www.nytimes.com/2016/01/04/nyregion/ex-suffolk-county-police-chiefs-arrest-hints-at-broader-federal-inquiry.html?_r=0

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