PROVIDENCE — A former police sergeant who was convicted of committing sexual assault while in uniform in the 1980s has been employed by the state Legislature for more than a decade, records show.
Michael J. Burke, a former North Kingstown police officer who served prison time on two counts of first-degree sexual assault, has worked as the $58,000-a-year “manager of House operations” since 2007 but is now out on workers’ compensation, state officials confirmed last week.
Burke, 64, of North Kingstown, was convicted by a jury in 1985 after being accused of forcing a woman to perform oral sex — once at his home and once in his patrol car, court records show. In November 2018, he tried unsuccessfully to have his criminal record expunged in state Superior Court, court records show.
In an affidavit supporting his expungement request, Burke acknowledged he was indicted for first-degree sexual assault while he was a police officer. “I was convicted, after trial and subsequent to my appeal, I was sentenced to 7 years to serve, 8 years probation,” he wrote. “I was incarcerated in May 1987 and released on October 19, 1989 (2 years, 5 months).”
In the affidavit, Burke said he has been married for 39 years, he has three adult sons, he worked as a Teamster from 1985 to 2015, and he said, “I presently am employed in an administrative capacity by the State of Rhode Island.”
House spokesman Larry Berman said Burke makes $58,845 a year as manager of House operations but has been out on a workers’ compensation claim since April 2 of this year. “When he was working, he and the operations’ staff clean the House offices and House chamber, empty trash, and set up House rooms for various functions,” he said.
Berman said the Legislature hired Burke on March 16, 2007.
The House speaker at that time, William J. Murphy, said Burke was recommended to him by a former state representative, whom he declined to identify, and he interviewed Burke.
“He explained the predicament he was in — he had a family, he was a police officer, he was looking for employment,” Murphy said. “He discussed his past with me. There were questions about the conviction, but, hey, it was a conviction.”
Murphy, a lawyer who is now an influential State House lobbyist, said it was his decision to hire Burke.
“I gave him a second chance,” he said. “When I was speaker, he always comported himself as a gentleman in the State House. I never received any complaint about him. There was nothing ever negative about his job performance, and I am glad I gave Mr. Burke a second chance.”
Burke’s criminal convictions are detailed in a March 1987 state Supreme Court decision, which upheld his conviction on two counts of first-degree sexual assault.
The decision, written by then-Justice Joseph R. Weisberger, said a woman testified that she was hitchhiking along Post Road in North Kingstown in October 1983 when Burke pulled up in his police cruiser, wearing his police uniform, and asked her to come over to him. The woman said Burke asked her if she wanted to make some money, and after she said no, he asked her to get into the police cruiser. The woman testified that Burke drove her to his house and told her to kneel on the floor.
“She complied because she was afraid of defendant due to the fact that he was a uniformed police officer carrying a gun,” the decision states, citing her testimony. The woman said he forced her to perform oral sex. “When she got up, Officer Burke put a handcuff on (her) left arm, laughed at her, removed the handcuff, and made her lie on the rug,” the decision states. He then performed a sex act, the decision says.
The woman testified that in January 1984, Burke again approached her and asked her if she wanted a ride. “After she refused, he got out of his police cruiser and pulled her by the arm into the front seat,” the decision states. “The defendant threatened not to let (her) out of the car unless she performed oral sex on him.”
Burke’s appeal argued, among other things, that the prosecution failed to show the woman was overcome through the use of “force or coercion.”
The court rejected that argument. “The evidence tends to show that (Burke), a uniformed police officer armed with handcuffs and a gun, used his position of authority to intimidate an alcoholic young woman into performing oral sex upon him,” the decision states. “The defendant’s position of authority, in and of itself, carries with it an implied threat.”
In November 2018, Burke filed a motion to expunge the record of his conviction on two counts of first-degree sexual assault. Superior Court Judge Melanie Wilk Thunberg held a hearing in December 2018 and “passed” the motion off the court calendar, court records show.
“If a motion is passed off the calendar, you are not denying it with prejudice,” explained Roger Williams University School of Law professor Andrew Horwitz, director of the Criminal Defense Clinic. “You can file again if you want to.”
But in this case, Horwitz said, first-degree sexual assault is not one of the categories of crimes that can be expunged under state law.
Neither Burke nor his attorney for the expungement motion, former state Representative Robert E. Flaherty, returned calls seeking comment.
Representative Julie A. Casimiro, a North Kingstown Democrat, said she considers Burke a “trusted adviser.” He is on the state and town Democratic committees and has “done a lot for Democrats in the state,” she said. Burke is “a great family man,” she said. “People love him.”
Casimiro said many people in North Kingstown know about Burke’s conviction, which she characterized as “a questionable case.”
“This is such old news. It was all over the papers in 1984, ’85,” she said. “Why this is resurfacing now is probably a political stunt. I think it’s really sad and pathetic that someone is bringing this up again after someone has already paid their dues to society. What ever happened to rehabilitation?”
When asked about Burke, Peg Langhammer, executive director of the Day One statewide sexual assault resource center, said Burke is not listed on the state Sex Offender Registry since his crime predated Megan’s Law, the 1994 federal law requiring information be made public about sex offenders.
“If he were in the registry, there would be a lot more information available for people to be able to make choices about proximity to him,” she said. “I’m all for giving people second chances, but it needs to be balanced with the interest of protection of the community. That is what the registry is for.”
Langhammer said sexual assault cases are often difficult to prove, and many organizations would not hire a convicted sex offender, depending on the nature of the work.
Speaking generally, she said, “People can turn their lives around, but a sexual assault case should never be expunged. The passage of time doesn’t automatically negate the risk to reoffend. Sex offenders will live in the community, and we need to balance public safety, supervision, and treatment.”