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Bribery witness charged with perjury

A defense contractor, cooperating with the government, changed his story on the stand.

By CARRIE WEIMAR
Published October 11, 2006


TAMPA - The star witness in the bribery trial of a retired Army colonel was indicted Tuesday on federal charges of lying under oath.

William Burke, 50, a private defense contractor assigned to U.S. Special Operations Command at MacDill Air Force Base, was charged with making a false declaration before a court. The maximum penalty is five years in prison and a $250,000 fine.

Burke told a federal judge last year he accepted $4,500 from defense consultant Tom Spellissy to give preferential treatment to his clients in the defense industry, according to court records. Spellissy was in charge of helping to arm special operations forces at SOCom before he retired in January 2005.

In exchange for his cooperation with federal officials, Burke was sentenced to probation. He faced up to 15 years in prison.

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

During Spellissy's trial in May, Burke changed his story, saying they did nothing illegal.

"I don't think we ever had a direct conversation about preferential treatment," Burke testified.

Burke said he felt pressured by federal agents into pleading guilty. At one point, Burke said an agent told him, "We know where you live and we know where your family lives."

Despite Burke's recantation, a jury found Spellissy guilty of two counts each of bribery and wire fraud, and one count of conspiracy.

Two months later, U.S. District Judge James Whittemore threw out most of the jury's verdict, calling it a "serious miscarriage of justice."

He dismissed the bribery charges and ordered a new trial for the wire fraud charges.

Spellissy was sentenced to 15 months in prison on the remaining conspiracy charge.

In a July interview with the St. Petersburg Times after the trial, Burke stood by his testimony. "The things I said in the courtroom were facts," he said. "Obviously, what I said p----- off a lot of people."

Burke's lawyer, Daniel Hernandez, did not return a telephone call seeking comment.

Steve Cole, spokesman for the U.S. Attorney's Office, said Burke's indictment will not affect his plea agreement on the initial bribery charge.

The indictment did not say which of Burke's statements were believed to be false: his plea agreement or his testimony during Spellissy's trial. "Obviously, he's made contradictory statements, and that's why he was charged," Cole said.

Spellissy's lawyer, Pat Doherty, said he was unsure whether Burke's indictment would affect his client's case. He is appealing the conspiracy charge to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 11th Circuit.

Doherty said it was rare for prosecutors to charge one of their own witnesses.

The only example he could name was Mark Fuhrman, the Los Angeles Police Department detective who denied ever using a racial epithet during the O.J. Simpson murder trial. Fuhrman later pleaded no contest to one count of perjury.

Carrie Weimar can be reached at 813 226-3416 or cweimar@sptimes.com.

[Last modified October 11, 2006, 06:18:25]


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