tampabay.com

SOCom inquiry sires new charges

A retired Army colonel is indicted in the scandal, accused of paying bribes to get preferential treatment for his clients.

By BRADY DENNIS
Published November 9, 2005


TAMPA - A retired Army colonel was indicted Tuesday in an ongoing bribery scandal involving defense contracts at Special Operations Command.

Tom Spellissy, 48, was charged with five counts, including wire fraud, bribery and conspiracy to defraud the United States.

He is expected to make a court appearance today. "He's been told to turn himself in," said Steve Cole, spokesman for the U.S. Attorney's Office.

A private defense contractor at SOCom, which is based at MacDill Air Force Base, already has pleaded guilty in the case. Officials say more people will be implicated.

"This is not the end," said Col. Samuel Taylor, a spokesman for SOCom.

According to prosecutors, Spellissy paid William Burke, a SOCom official in charge of equipping special operations forces, several thousand dollars to give companies he represented preferential treatment.

Burke pleaded guilty last month and agreed to cooperate with investigators.

Tuesday's nine-page indictment says the offenses took place between early 2004 and July 26, 2005.

It states that Spellissy set up a consulting firm, Strategic Defense International of Clearwater, to "make illegal payments" to Carlisle Bradford Enterprises, which prosecutors say Burke set up to "accept illegal payments."

Prosecutors say Spellissy would tell Burke which companies he was representing, and, in turn, Burke would provide preferential treatment to those contractors. The indictment outlines numerous e-mails the two men traded beginning in April 2004, though the content of the e-mails was not disclosed.

It also details thousands of dollars sent through international wire transfers from Nordea Bank Sweden to an account at Bank of America in Scranton, Pa. Prosecutors say that the Swedish account belonged to Spellissy and his consulting firm and that the Bank of America account belonged to Burke.

Spellissy retired last December. He had been in charge of special weapons programs at SOCom. Neither Spellissy nor his attorney, Pat Doherty, returned calls seeking comment Tuesday.

Doherty previously denied that his client did anything wrong. He said Spellissy worked legally with Burke after a 25-year career in the armed services that ended with an honorable discharge.

After Burke pleaded guilty last month, the U.S. Attorney's Office and SOCom said they were trying to determine whether special operations forces had received inferior equipment as a result of the scam.

On Tuesday, Taylor said he did not believe that to be the case.

"We have no reason to believe this has in any way been detrimental to our acquisition process," he said. "Our troops continue to receive the best equipment as they carry out their mission on the global war on terror."

Since the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, SOCom, which oversees the nation's elite commandos, has been at the forefront of the war on terror.

SOCom also has been rocked by scandal.

Last week, the FBI said it was looking into separate allegations of corruption in defense contracts at SOCom. A subject of that investigation is the SOCom commander, Gen. Bryan "Doug" Brown.

As a federal contracts gatekeeper at SOCom since 1999, Burke oversaw the evaluation and testing of foreign and domestic weapons systems that eventually would equip special operations forces.

His recommendations for weapons contracts went directly to the Office of Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld. Companies he recommended generally got congressional funding. Companies he did not recommend were put at the back of the line.

Last month, Burke, 49, pleaded guilty in federal court to a bribery charge and now faces as much as 15 years in prison and a $250,000 fine. In exchange for leniency, he agreed to cooperate with federal authorities.

In his guilty plea, Burke admitted taking bribes from an unnamed co-conspirator who was representing companies competing for multimillion-dollar contracts. His plea agreement also details how Burke received several thousand dollars from an unidentified individual and was promised substantial money "down the road."

The FBI, SOCom and the Pentagon inspector general, the agency's investigative arm, have teamed up in the ongoing investigation. Taylor on Tuesday said the indictment hasn't altered day-to-day business at SOCom.

"It has not been a distraction," Taylor said. "We took immediate action to make sure this was investigated fully by the appropriate people. When these things surface, we take the appropriate actions."

Spellissy attended Clearwater Central Catholic High School and graduated from the U.S. Military Academy at West Point in 1979. He commanded battalions in Fort Sill, Okla., and Germany, according to a biography he gave to a defense industry conference in 1999.

Spellissy served as a military analyst at MacDill-based Central Command, the nerve center of the war in Iraq. He also was the point person for Foreign Comparative Testing at SOCom for several years, the same area Burke eventually took over.

Spellissy bought a $680,000 house in Indian Rocks Beach last December from a combination of savings and profits made from selling some condominiums he owned, his attorney has said.

The maximum penalties he faces, if convicted, are five years each on the conspiracy charge, 15 years each on the bribery charges and 20 years each on the wire fraud charges. Each count also carries a maximum fine of $250,000.

- Times staff writer Paul de la Garza contributed to this report.