Sansom sues state for legal bills
By BRANDON LARRABEE
THE NEWS SERVICE OF FLORIDA
Former House Speaker Ray Sansom is suing the state, saying he should be reimbursed for the costs of defending himself against corruption charges that were eventually dropped.
Sansom is asking for $817,518.73, plus interest, for his defense in the case that ultimately drove him from office. Sansom faced charges including grand theft and conspiracy in the case, which stemmed from a 2007 appropriation that was supposed to be for an emergency operations center in Sansom's district.
Prosecutor Willie Meggs argued at trial that it was really a thinly-disguised effort to build a taxpayer-funded airplane hangar for Jay Odom, a political contributor to Sansom.
Meggs gave up on the case after Circuit Judge Terry Lewis said he didn't believe prosecutors had made any progress in their attempt to prove a conspiracy by Sansom and Odom to steal taxpayer money, which Meggs said made it difficult to move forward with the case procedurally.
Now, the former speaker is asking taxpayers to foot the bill for Sansom's hiring of Dobson, Davis & Smith, which billed Sansom anywhere from $275 to $400 an hour for the services of five lawyers as well as $75 an hour for work done by paralegals. Sansom also agreed to pay expenses for the legal team.
In the suit, filed Tuesday, attorneys with another law firm, Broad and Cassel, argue that Sansom has a right to the funds under a common law principle that any public official who successfully defends himself or herself from charges related to his public duties is entitled to have legal costs covered.
The charges against Sansom were "directly related to Plaintiff's performance of his public duties and arose out of the context of passing an appropriation act that served a public purpose," the attorneys argue.
"The public official's entitlement to reimbursement is an obligation which arises independent of statute or contract and is not subject to discretion," the suit says.
The bills aren't broken down by Sansom beyond the $50,000 retainer and another $767,518.73 in costs the law firm rang up from April 29, 2009 until the case was dropped in late March 2011.
Meggs' decision to drop the case ended what was then a four-year saga that toppled Sansom, R-Destin, who had only briefly served as speaker when he decided to take a leave of absence from the job. Amid a growing Republican clamor to resolve the caucus' leadership situation, Sansom resigned.
Sansom, Odom and former Northwest Florida State College President Bob Richburg agreed to pay restitution for the $310,000 spent on the facility before the college returned the $6 million appropriated for the project.
A spokesman for current House Speaker Dean Cannon, R-Winter Park, said the speaker was out of the state and couldn't be reached for comment.
In addition to the expenses for the criminal case and interest, Sansom is asking that the state be forced to pay his legal fees for the new lawsuit itself.