Saturday, November 23, 2013
By FRANCES ROBLES and VIVIAN YEE — Saturday, November 23rd, 2013 ‘The New York Times’
The last several months have unfolded tempestuously for Charles J. Hynes, the Brooklyn district attorney. He faces accusations that his office handled a series of wrongful convictions in murder cases, one of which has resulted in a $150 million lawsuit. He was criticized for allowing his office to be the focus of a television show. And he lost a primary and a lopsided general election, forcing him out after 24 years.
Now, in its waning days, Mr. Hynes’s office is consumed with a new drama. A first-year assistant district attorney, Barbara A. Burke, was fired this month.
The office says the dismissal was for poor performance, but it is investigating how embarrassing emails Ms. Burke forwarded from Mr. Hynes’s inner circle landed on the website BuzzFeed.
At the same time, federal authorities are investigating whether Ms. Burke’s supervisors pressed her to lie under oath as part of a nascent investigation into the office’s handling of the case of Jabbar Collins, who served 16 years in prison for a murder he has been cleared of committing.
Ms. Burke has a history of going public with scandalous accusations — and prevailing. She lost her job before, after she went over a supervisor’s head to alert prosecutors that a pastor at the Roman Catholic school in Queens where she was principal was stealing from the school to finance his extravagant lifestyle.
Ms. Burke, who arrived in Mr. Hynes’s office in January after graduating from law school, is not the only one leaving: One of Mr. Hynes’s top deputies, Michael F. Vecchione, last week became the first in a likely exodus of senior aides before Kenneth P. Thompson, a Democrat who unseated Mr. Hynes in the election, takes over. On the day Ms. Burke was fired, two veteran prosecutors tried to dismiss a prominent case over Mr. Vecchione’s objections, and they were demoted.
When the emails surfaced, Mr. Hynes first said he had been “hacked,” but his office later suggested that the emails had been doctored and leaked to smear Mr. Hynes and his longtime friend Sol Wachtler, a former chief judge of New York State who was a mentor to Ms. Burke and helped her secure the prosecutor’s job.
Mr. Hynes’s office claims at least one of the emails was fabricated and has asked for the appointment of a special prosecutor to investigate. The disputed email appears to show Mr. Wachtler using a derogatory Yiddish term for a black person in reference to Mr. Thompson.
Ms. Burke’s official task at the office was to handle information requests for the lawsuit that a lawyer, Joel B. Rudin, had filed on behalf of Mr. Collins.
The suit accuses high-level prosecutors in the office of coercing false testimony and lying about it.
But she was also involved in Mr. Hynes’s re-election campaign. She became privy to campaign strategy correspondence between Mr. Hynes and Mr. Wachtler — including emails published by BuzzFeed days before the election — after she was asked to help with a fund-raising effort.
Ms. Burke is believed to have shared the emails with a few friends, but not with BuzzFeed. She declined to comment about the matter for this article.
After publication of the emails, BuzzFeed removed the disputed email and apologized, acknowledging that it did not know its origin.
The district attorney’s office said an internal investigation had revealed that the message attributed to Mr. Wachtler was a forgery, but the office did not accede to a request from The New York Times for copies of the correspondence or documentation of the internal investigation. The emails were leaked in an apparent effort to show that Mr. Hynes was strategizing with a felon, Mr. Wachtler, who pleaded guilty in 1993 to harassment of a former lover. Mr. Hynes, who lost the Democratic primary to Mr. Thompson, rejoined the race as a Republican, saying he was angry that his opponent was allied with a felon, Clarence Norman Jr., a former state assemblyman and Brooklyn Democratic chairman. (Mr. Thompson has denied a connection.)
Asked about the emails in an interview, Mr. Wachtler said, “I have a strong suspicion that it was generated by an assistant district attorney,” but he would not name one.
Ms. Burke’s lawyer, Mark Bederow, said she was being punished for raising ethical concerns. “She was proud and excited to be an assistant district attorney,” he said. “She raised ethical considerations and was demoted and ultimately terminated as a result of that.”
In 2002, Ms. Burke, who was then known as Barbara Samide, was the principal of St. Elizabeth’s School in Ozone Park when she discovered that the parish’s pastor was siphoning money from the school coffers — in part, she speculated, to support a teenage lover and pay for resort vacations and a lease on a new car.
When the Diocese of Brooklyn, which serves that borough and Queens, failed to act, she met with the police and sued the diocese, saying it had allowed the pastor, the Rev. John Thompson, to sexually harass her with lewd language.
Months later, she was placed on unpaid leave.
Her determination won her admiration in the parish; one prosecutor called her “pure as driven snow.” But to a few colleagues and journalists covering her case, she could seem inconsistent and temperamental. She claimed she suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder because of Father Thompson.
He eventually pleaded guilty, and a judge ordered the diocese to give Ms. Samide $50,000 in back pay. But Father Thompson’s former lawyer, Roland G. Riopelle, said her accusations may have helped his client. He said he believed that Ms. Burke had damaged her credibility so much by making unverifiable allegations about Father Thompson’s lifestyle that prosecutors were forced to accept a more favorable plea. He was sentenced to five years’ probation. Ms. Burke and the diocese settled her lawsuit; the terms were not disclosed.
Ms. Burke became close to Mr. Wachtler at Touro Law Center, where she enrolled after stints as a guidance counselor and a graduate school student, and where Mr. Wachtler is an adjunct professor. He recommended her for the job in Mr. Hynes’s office after she told him a moving story about being a single mother, Mr. Wachtler said.
Then she became involved in handling the Collins lawsuit for the district attorney. Mr. Rudin subpoenaed her, apparently after hearing that she believed that prosecutors in her office were withholding important information, he said.
Ms. Burke submitted a signed affidavit denying any knowledge of the evidence he sought, Mr. Rudin said. But she confided to a prosecutor outside Brooklyn that her supervisors had pressured her to lie, and that prosecutor alerted the public corruption office of the United States attorney in Brooklyn, which sent federal agents and prosecutors to meet with her several times, according to people familiar with the situation. The New York Post reported that the United States attorney’s office had interviewed Ms. Burke. Officials of the United States attorney’s office and the F.B.I. declined to comment on the matter, as did Ms. Burke’s lawyer.
Posted by Suzannah B. Troy artist at 11/23/2013 02:25:00 PM