Retired school superintendent Danny Burnett was convicted last fall at trial for leaking the information to Angelo Vega, who at the time was the police chief in Columbus, and then lying about it to federal investigators. Prosecutors said Burnett was Vega’s mentor when he was a teenager in Carrizozo and Burnett was in charge of the small school system.
Prosecutors claimed Burnett told Vega about the investigation over lunch in February 2011.
Burnett’s wife, Paula Burnett, was the chief of the criminal division of the U.S. Attorney’s Office at that time. She was never charged with any wrongdoing and retired last year after her husband’s conviction.
Burnett faced a sentence of 33-to-41 months in prison.
His attorneys asked that the 64-year-old Burnett receive a sentence of probation that included community service.
They cited his lack of any criminal record and a lifetime dedicated to educating young people in Grants, Carrizozo and Los Lunas as reasons for a lenient sentence.
Federal prosecutors from the Western District of Texas asked U.S. District Judge Claire V. Eagan of the Northern District of Oklahoma to impose the prison sentence recommended by federal guidelines.
Out-of-state prosecutors and the judge were brought in to the case to avoid the appearance of any conflict of interest because of Paula Burnett’s position with the U.S. Attorney’s Office in New Mexico.
According to trial testimony, Vega was earning $2,000 a month on top of his police salary for the work he did for the cartel plus $1,500 each time he allowed the cartel to use village and police vehicles to carry out their smuggling operation.
All told, prosecutors estimated Vega was paid $40,000 to be the “badge in the pocket” of the smugglers, vouching for honesty of members of the gun smuggling ring to other law enforcement officers, identifying undercover federal agents and providing counter surveillance.
The jury acquitted Burnett of telling Vega that his cartel paymaster, Columbus Village Trustee Blas “Woody” Gutierrez, also had his telephone tapped.
Gutierrez has pleaded guilty to federal charges in the gun-smuggling case and is awaiting sentencing. His plea agreement, like Vega’s, has been sealed.
A fourth charge that Burnett gave Vega specific information about an intercepted telephone call between Vega and Gutierrez was dismissed before the trial started this week.
“By disclosing the existence of a wiretap to former Columbus Police Chief Angelo Vega, Mr. Burnett undermined a federal investigation of the trafficking of firearms into Mexico and put law enforcement agents in jeopardy,” U.S. Attorney Robert Pitman, of San Antonio, said in a statement.
Pitman said Burnett’s friendship with Vega may explain his actions but doesn’t excuse compromising the investigation.