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After nearly two years, Ray Sansom gets his day in court

The heat was intensifying but Ray Sansom was calm, at least on paper.

Using his Florida House of Representatives letterhead, Sansom informed a state prosecutor that he was not only willing to testify before a grand jury, "I am anxious to do so."

But it did not go as he planned. The grand jury said Sansom inserted $6 million in the state budget to build an airport hangar that would benefit a campaign contributor.

Nearly two years have passed since the indictment, the case bogged down by a series of motions to dismiss and turns that have hurt both sides.

Today, Sansom gets his time in court. A jury of four women and two men will decide if, as he insists, he did nothing wrong or whether he misused taxpayer money.

The trial could feature big names including former Gov. Charlie Crist, former Senate President Ken Pruitt and former state emergency management director Craig Fugate, now administrator of the Federal Emergency Management Agency.

Also testifying will be one of the men who was charged with Sansom, Bob Richburg — only now he'll testify against Sansom and his co-defendant, developer Jay Odom.

The men have been charged with grand theft and conspiracy to commit grand theft. The maximum penalty for each individual is 30 years in prison.

Sansom has already paid a price. He was forced to quit a college job, was ousted as speaker and then, on the eve of an ethics trial before his peers, quit the Legislature.

• • •

He might have never drawn scrutiny.

Sansom was powerful as the chief budget writer in the House but also unassuming, a likable figure around the state Capitol.

It all began to unravel on the day in 2008 that he was sworn in as speaker of the House — the day he got an unadvertised job with a small college in the Panhandle.

Using public records, the St. Petersburg Times revealed how Sansom had over a few years prior directed $35 million in extra or accelerated money to his future employer, Northwest Florida State College. He funded the school even when others were getting cut due to the declining state economy.

The airport building is what drew the attention of Leon County State Attorney Willie Meggs, who got a complaint from a citizen outraged by what he read in the newspaper.

Though Sansom denied it when first asked, records and interviews indicated that Odom wanted to use the building for his executive jet business, Destin Jet.

Odom had known Sansom for years and became a major ally as Sansom climbed the ranks in the state GOP. Over the years, Odom contributed nearly $1 million to Republican candidates, Sansom included, and the state party. Politicians flew around in his plane.

Odom had the perfect location — Destin Airport — where he already had a land lease from Okaloosa County for Destin Jet. In 2007, he got the city of Destin to approve a resolution asking the state for $6 million to pay for his building, saying he would turn it over to emergency officials for use as a staging area in a major storm. The request went nowhere.

But in the same year, Sansom put $6 million in the budget for an emergency operations and training center at Destin Airport. There was no mention of Odom in the budget appropriation, and in an December 2008 interview, Sansom denied knowing that Odom was seeking state money.

An e-mail later surfaced suggesting the men discussed the project before the money was approved in the 2007 budget.

"Jay and I agreed that the project is to be held close until after your actions and until after we receive guidance from you," Northwest Florida State College president Richburg wrote to Sansom's official House e-mail account.

Richburg was charged, too. But last week he reached a deal with Meggs to testify against Sansom and Odom. One thing he'll likely say on the stand is that Sansom indeed knew that the building was put at the airport because it would benefit Odom.

Meggs will likely press his case on documents that show connections between what Sansom proposed and what Odom wanted. The college's building plans even called an extra-thick floor for "aircraft storage."

To play up the notion that Sansom disguised the true intent of the project, Meggs could rely on a big-name witness: Crist. The governor, who let the project escape veto, has said he was unaware of Odom's role.

Once it was exposed, Crist called on the college to return the $6 million (only a fraction had been spent on planning), and it did. The trustees also fired Richburg.

• • •

The defense will likely seek to portray Sansom as a man widely respected in his community and a lawmaker who had that community in mind when he sought the money.

Sansom, 48, has said he long wanted an emergency operations center in Destin in case of a hurricane. He said state money came available and he contacted Richburg to see if he could use the building.

The defense will call witnesses who say the operations center made sense. One could be Fugate, the former Florida emergency management director.

But the case is built around Odom's desire to use the building and Sansom's alleged role in helping him achieve that goal. Though Sansom first denied knowing about Odom, evidence mounted otherwise.

His defense strategy evolved and lawyers will likely argue that even though Odom wanted to use the hangarlike space for his business, any lease would have to be approved by the college board of trustees.

"There is no way legally he could have done anything to help Jay Odom with this building," Sansom attorney Steve Dobson said during a hearing in 2009, one of many heard on motions to dismiss the case.

The overriding theme of the defense will be that the Legislature has a right to appropriate money. Even if Sansom may have shown poor judgment, he did not commit a crime, the argument will go.

"I think that's the truth," Dobson said Friday after a jury was selected. "And we're hoping the jury hears that."

Times/Herald staff writer Steve Bousquet contributed to this report. Alex Leary can be reached at leary@sptimes.com. Follow breaking news about the trial at blogs.tampabay.com/buzz.

Time line of the Sansom case

Nov. 18, 2008: Rep. Ray Sansom, R-Destin, is sworn in as speaker of the Florida House. The same day he takes a job at Northwest Florida State College.

Nov. 19: College announces Sansom job.

Dec. 7: The St. Petersburg Times/Miami Herald Tallahassee Bureau, after reporting millions Sansom secured for the school, documents a link between a private developer's request for a state-funded airplane hangar and $6 million in funding Sansom got for an airport building to be used by the college.

Jan. 5, 2009: Under widespread pressure, Sansom quits his college job.

Jan. 26: Grand jury decides to investigate.

Feb. 2: House Republicans vote to replace Sansom as speaker with Rep. Larry Cretul of Ocala.

April 17: Grand jury indicts Sansom on felony official misconduct charge related to airport funding.

April 28: College trustees give up on airport project, return money to state.

May 27: Grand jury issues an additional indictment, adding perjury charge for Sansom and charges for college president Bob Richburg and developer Jay Odom.

June 26: Investigator finds probable cause that Sansom damaged "faith and confidence" in the Florida House. A legislative panel is convened to hear the case.

Oct. 5: Circuit Judge Terry Lewis throws out part of the charges against Sansom. State Attorney Willie Meggs seeks appeal.

Jan. 6, 2010: Meggs charges Sansom, Richburg and Odom with grand theft and conspiracy to commit grand theft.

Jan. 26: Sansom files motion accusing Meggs of misconduct in the case, including making public statements and releasing grand jury transcripts to newspapers.

Feb. 21: Sansom resigns his House seat on eve of ethics trial before a panel of his peers.

Oct. 19: Judge Lewis faults Meggs' behavior in the case but said it did not amount to prosecutorial misconduct and declines to dismiss the charges.

March 11, 2011: Richburg turns state's evidence and agrees to testify against Sansom and Odom. He tells investigators that the building was put at the airport because it would benefit Odom.

March 18: A jury of four women and two men is picked for the trial.

Today: The trial begins.

How the case unfolded

Read all the coverage of the Ray Sansom saga at links.tampabay.com.

After nearly two years, Ray Sansom gets his day in court 03/20/11 [Last modified: Sunday, March 20, 2011 9:11pm]

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