Column: Charges surface on Suffolk County corruption

COURTESY PHOTO | Suffolk County District Attorney Thomas Spota
COURTESY PHOTO | Suffolk County District Attorney Thomas Spota

Suffolk County, which has known frequent governmental scandals through the decades, may or may not see a new and far-reaching one erupt.

Meanwhile, some are charging that a rush to judgement is underway.

“It’s like a lynch mob not interested in innocence or guilt, just the strength of the tree branch and thickness of the rope,” said Suffolk County Legislator Thomas Barraga (R-West Islip) about recent demands made by some county officials that other county officials resign.

The backdrop is a federal investigation into corruption in the criminal justice system in Suffolk. More about this probe will become clear if and/or when the U.S. Attorney for the Eastern District of New York, which includes Suffolk County, reveals what case or cases he might pursue.

Mr. Barraga was a state assemblyman for 23 years before being elected to the county legislature in 2005.

He said “neither the DA nor the county executive has been charged with anything, so what gives other elected officials the right to call for their resignation?”

Joining Mr. Barraga in urging a cautious approach to the situation is Presiding Officer of the Suffolk Legislature DuWayne Gregory (D-Amityville), the second highest official in Suffolk County government after the county executive. Mr. Gregory said, “I’m of the mindset to trust but verify, not distrust and vilify.”

Interestingly, Mr. Gregory, a Democrat who holds the highest post an African-American has ever achieved in Suffolk, is politically the polar opposite of conservative Republican Barraga.

Central to what’s been happening is James Burke, chief of the Suffolk County Police Department until his resignation and then arrest in December on an indictment brought by the office of the U.S. Attorney.

“I find the corruption of an entire department by this defendant is shocking,” said U.S. District Court Judge Leonard Wexler at an initial hearing for Mr. Burke. Then, in February, Mr. Burke pleaded guilty to beating up a suspect in a precinct house who had broken into Mr. Burke’s police vehicle. The disgraced top cop then orchestrated a police cover-up of his actions. He’s now in jail awaiting sentencing.

An anonymous letter from “several long-time members” of the Suffolk Police Department relating misdeeds of Mr. Burke has been widely reported. “These [misdeeds] have been personally witnessed by the writers or by firsthand witnesses, these are not speculation, rumors or tall tales, they are facts,” the letter charges.

It was sent to Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone and his transition team in December 2011, just after his election, in an effort, the letter said, to save the incoming “administration from scandal and embarrassment.” It described Mr. Burke as a “prolific spinner of facts” and “a master of winning people over and gaining their trust. He can and has had very high-powered people do his bidding.”

Despite the letter and the information it contained, Mr. Bellone appointed Mr. Burke police chief. Mr. Bellone says he discounted the letter because Suffolk District Attorney Thomas Spota, for whom Mr. Burke worked as chief investigator and with whom he was close, discounted it.

Mr. Bellone’s shift of blame to Mr. Spota expanded dramatically last month with his demand that the DA resign amid what has been a succession of investigative articles in Newsday, highly critical of the Suffolk DA’s office. These have included articles describing that office as not taking appropriate action upon receiving evidence on wiretaps of crimes.

Also calling for the DA to resign has been Suffolk Sheriff Vincent DeMarco. And several county legislators have demanded that both Messrs. Spota and Bellone resign.

Mr. Spota shot back that Mr. Bellone’s demand “is not based on anything but a personal vendetta against me for investigating and prosecuting people that he is close to.” Mr. Spota specifically cited Mr. Bellone’s “multiple” pleas “in the presence of other prosecutors” on behalf of his “childhood friend” Robert Stricoff and Donald Rodgers, the county’s information technology commissioner.

The DA said he had “refused” to “discontinue my ongoing investigation” of Mr. Stricoff and financial improprieties when the latter was chairman of the Democratic committee in Mr. Bellone’s hometown of Babylon. That investigation has since been “referred to the chief law enforcement counsel for the state Board of Elections … And I did prosecute Rodgers … He pled guilty to official misconduct and offering a false instrument.”

As to the Newsday reporting, Mr. Spota maintained it is “fundamentally flawed.” Since taking office in 2001, “I have tried my very, very best to do what is right … I have prosecuted probably over 100 public officials. I never shied away from one of them.”

What’s next? In question is what direction Mr. Burke — with that ability to spin and ”winning people over” — might send federal authorities. By making a deal with the office of the U.S. Attorney and pleading guilty, he avoided a possible 20-year prison sentence if he had gone to trial.

Ironically, it was Mr. Burke when he was a high Suffolk law enforcement official who started and continued a feud with the office of the U.S. Attorney that resulted in years of conflict between that office and the Suffolk DA’s office.