tampabay.com

Retired colonel gets 15 months in SOCom case

Most charges against Tom Spellissy had been overturned by a judge, who says probation isn't an appropriate sentence.

By CARRIE WEIMAR
Published August 15, 2006


TAMPA - As Tom Spellissy walked into U.S. District Court Monday, he had no idea what his punishment might be.

The federal judge had already overturned a jury's verdict and dismissed the bulk of the case against him. His lawyer was arguing for probation, citing dubious evidence and his client's exemplary 29-year military career.

But prosecutors said Spellissy caused irreparable harm at Special Operations Command in Tampa by seeking special treatment for his clients in the defense industry. They recommended he spend up to two years in prison on the single conspiracy charge he still faced.

U.S. District Judge James Whittemore weighed the case for more than two hours. He noted Spellissy's reputation and his unfortunate family circumstances: a wife with ovarian cancer and two young children.

In the end, Whittemore said he had no choice but to sentence Spellissy to 15 months in prison.

"Probation is not an appropriate sentence for this offense," Whittemore said.

Spellissy was also ordered to pay a $4,000 fine. His company, Strategic Defense International Inc. of Clearwater, was fined $125,000.

Spellissy, a retired Army colonel who worked as a private defense contractor, won't be heading for a federal prison soon. He will remain free on bail until the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals in Atlanta rules on his case.

Spellissy's case began last year when federal prosecutors accused him of paying $4,500 in bribes to William Burke, a private contractor at Special Operations Command.

Burke pleaded guilty and was sentenced to probation in exchange for testifying against Spellissy.

But at trial, he testified that Spellissy had done nothing wrong.

Despite the abrupt change, the jury found Spellissy guilty of all charges: two counts each of bribery and wire fraud and one count of conspiracy.

At a July 6 hearing, Whittemore threw out all but one of the jury's convictions and ordered a new trial for the wire fraud charges.

Prosecutor Robert O'Neill said he is waiting for the appeals court ruling before deciding if he'll proceed with a trial on the wire fraud charges.

At Monday's hearing, Doherty noted Spellissy's public service beyond the military. Most recently, he coached a girls' basketball team.

But O'Neill said Spellissy's case created serious problems at Special Operations Command. The scandal prompted questions from Congress and a government audit, which delays getting much-needed supplies to military men and women, he said.

Whittemore dismissed that argument, calling it an excuse.

"I don't believe that for a second," he said. "That may be used by some to scrutinize and audit and question. And that's appropriate. But it shouldn't for a moment slow down an important and vital function on behalf of the fighting men and women of this country."