Federal prosecutors don’t want alleged wiretap leaker Danny Burnett’s defense team to bring up the notorious “Fast and Furious” investigation, in which U.S. government agents allowed thousands of firearms to be smuggled into Mexico, where they ended up in the hands of drug cartels.
Prosecutors contend in court filings that the case in which Burnett is accused of leaking the information – the investigation of officials in the New Mexico border village of Columbus smuggling guns into Mexico – was totally separate from the “Fast and Furious” investigation in Arizona.
Ten people, including Columbus village officials, have pleaded guilty to various roles in smuggling 200 guns into Mexico on behalf of a Juárez-based drug cartel.
Danny Burnett, who is married to the former chief of the criminal division at the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Albuquerque, is charged with warning Columbus Police Chief Angelo Vega that federal agents had wiretaps on cellphones owned by Vega and Columbus Village Trustee Blas “Woody” Gutierrez.
Vega and Gutierrez are among those who have pleaded guilty.
Prosecutors who want to keep “Fast and Furious” out of their wiretap case say there is only one link. Before the Columbus investigation began, Border Patrol agents found two guns that traced back to the “Fast and Furious” investigation in the trunk of a car used by two co-conspirators in the Columbus case.
But prosecutors may face more problems than a slim link to a botched Arizona investigation that garnered national headlines, according to federal court records filed in the case.
Burnett’s attorneys, Jacquelyn Robins and retired Assistant U.S. Attorney Larry Gomez, say evidence about how Burnett might have learned of the wiretap was lost by federal agents in Dallas when computer equipment was replaced.
Defense attorneys and prosecutors are battling over what evidence will be introduced at Burnett’s trial, scheduled for late September in Albuquerque.
Burnett’s wife, Assistant U.S. Attorney Paula Burnett, has denied telling her husband about the wiretap and insists she knew very little about the case against the ring of Columbus village officials smuggling firearms into Mexico, according to court records.
She has not been charged with any crime but resigned as chief of the criminal division for the U.S. Attorney’s Office when her husband was charged. She is now in the civil division.
Paula Burnett told investigators she recused herself from having anything to do with the case once she learned Vega was a target of a federal investigation.
She was aware that her husband, a retired educator, and Vega had known each other for decades. Danny Burnett was school superintendent in Carrizozo when Vega was a student there and befriended Vega when he got into trouble.
Prosecutors believe Danny Burnett learned of the wiretaps either directly from his wife or by opening email attachments on her mobile computer devices, court records show.
According to court records, the investigation of Paula Burnett’s computers was inconclusive as to whether the email attachments that included the wiretap affidavits were ever opened.
But defense attorneys were unable to have most of the computer evidence checked by their experts because the copies of the computer hard drives were lost by federal investigators during a computer system upgrade.
According to defense attorneys, the one computer still available for testing by their expert showed that the email attachment with information about the wiretap was never opened.
Danny Burnett also is charged with giving Vega a specific example of information on an intercepted telephone conversation and then lying to federal agents about the conversation, alleged to have taken place in Albuquerque in February 2011.
Burnett has pleaded not guilty.
Vega and Gutierrez have pleaded guilty to participating in the gunrunning scheme, but their plea agreements are sealed so what type of deal they cut with government prosecutors isn’t public.
Normally, people who have pleaded guilty to crimes get some consideration for a lighter sentence when they testify for the government.
According to court records, Vega told investigators that Burnett warned him of the wiretaps at a lunch in mid-February.
However, both men continued to use their telephones, texting messages of more crimes.
Vega told investigators he didn’t know the wiretap included text messages.
Federal prosecutors from the Western District of Texas are handling the prosecution and U.S. District Judge Claire V. Eagan of the Northern District of Oklahoma is hearing the case.