Retired educator Danny Burnett, who is married to the former head of the criminal division in the U.S. Attorney’s Office here, was convicted Friday of leaking wiretap information in 2011 to a southern New Mexico police chief who at the time was on the payroll of the Juárez Cartel.
The eight-woman, four-man jury deliberated for more than seven hours Thursday and Friday before finding that Burnett tipped off then-Columbus Police Chief Angelo Vega about a possible wiretap with the intent of impeding the investigation. He was also convicted of lying to a federal investigator when he denied he had told Vega about the wiretap.
Burnett and his attorneys Jacquelyn Robins and Larry Gomez appeared disappointed with the verdict and had little to say as they left the courtroom.
They indicated they would examine the possibility of an appeal.
Assistant U.S. Attorney Steven R. Spitzer said the El Paso-based prosecution team was satisfied with the verdict.
The prosecution was handled by the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Western District of Texas, and U.S. District Judge Claire V. Eagan of the Northern District of Oklahoma heard the case.
Burnett’s wife is veteran Assistant U.S. Attorney Paula Burnett, and the out-of-state prosecutors and judge were brought in to avoid the appearance of any conflict.
“It was a very important case,” Spitzer said. “It was important that the jury have an opportunity to review the evidence in this case.”
Each count carries a five-year prison sentence, but under federal sentencing guidelines, Burnett’s sentence could be much less than 10 years.
Burnett retired as superintendent of the Los Lunas School District in 2003 and served in other school districts around the state.
Paula Burnett was head of the criminal division for the U.S. Attorney’s Office in New Mexico at the time the Columbus gun smuggling case was under investigation.
She resigned that post when her husband was indicted and now works in the civil division.
Paula Burnett has not been charged with any crime. She did not testify during her husband’s trial. Legal observers said both the prosecution and defense could have raised legal arguments that would have prevented her from testifying to anything of substance.
Danny Burnett and Vega both testified they had a long friendship that began in Carrizozo when Vega was a troubled student in need of direction.
Burnett, the superintendent of the small Carrizozo school district at that time, took Vega under his wing, helped him graduate from high school and helped find him jobs.
They gave completely different testimony about a February 17, 2011, conversation outside an Albuquerque restaurant.
Vega claimed Burnett warned him that he was under investigation for running guns to Mexico and that federal agents were listening to his telephone.
Burnett said the two discussed the origins of an AR-15 Vega wanted to trade for Burnett’s old pickup truck. Burnett said he told Vega he didn’t think Vega could afford the rifle and should return it to whatever police evidence room it came from – implying that Vega had taken it illegally.
Spitzer and Assistant U.S. Attorney Gregory McDonald were able to show the quality and quantity of conversation about crimes among the gun smuggling ring declined after the meeting between Burnett and Vega.
Robins and Gomez struck hard at Vega’s credibility, eliciting testimony Vega was earning $2,000 a month on top of his police salary for the work he did for the cartel and a $1,500 each time he allowed the cartel to use village and police vehicles to carry out their smuggling operation.
Prosecutors estimated Vega was paid $40,000 over the course of six or seven months to be the “badge in the pocket” of the smugglers.
Vega has pleaded guilty to his role in the gun smuggling operation and has spent the last 31 months in federal lockup awaiting sentencing. He testified wearing shackles and a red prison jumpsuit.
The jury acquitted Burnett of telling Vega that his cartel paymaster, Columbus Village Trustee Blas “Woody” Gutierrez, also had his telephone tapped.
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.