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As Ray Sansom case opens, defense vigorously denies charges

TALLAHASSEE — With his one-time colleagues working in the Capitol across the street, former House Speaker Ray Sansom went on trial Monday for his role in an alleged scheme to build an airplane hangar for a developer, a charge his attorney vehemently denied.

Opening statements underscored the crux of the case, which has been two years in the making: Did Sansom sneak $6 million in the budget under false pretenses, in effect stealing from taxpayers, or was he doing a public service by securing funding for a building that could be used by emergency officials in his hometown of Destin during a storm?

"When all the dust settles," Leon County State Attorney Willie Meggs told the jury, it will be clear "what this building is, is predominantly an aircraft hangar."

Sansom's attorney, Steve Dobson, said there is "no question" developer Jay Odom wanted to use the building at Destin Airport, but he said Sansom had no role in the planning once the money was appropriated in 2007.

He pointedly told the jury that it was "perfectly appropriate and legal" for Sansom to use education dollars, adding it was a practice of high-ranking lawmakers to insert home projects into the budget.

"This has happened since time immortal in the Legislature," Dobson said.

Sansom, R-Destin, and Odom have been charged with grand theft and conspiracy to commit grand theft. A third co-defendant, former Northwest Florida State College president Bob Richburg, has agreed to testify against the two men in exchange for charges being dropped against him.

The day's drama was more that the trial commenced, nearly two years since Sansom, Odom and Richburg were first charged, than what was said. Both sides have been arguing the central points for months in pretrial court battles.

Still, with a jury in the courtroom, the stakes were obvious and opening statements provide a road map of how the two sides will proceed over the next week or more.

Meggs brought the jury through the genesis of the airport building, showing how Odom once tried to get state funding through the city of Destin. That went nowhere. But in the same year, Sansom put the money in the state budget for a building at the same location.

The prosecutor said he would use e-mails and other records (at one point Richburg's computer was brought into court, wrapped in red tape marked "evidence") to show the projects were the same, that Sansom and Odom collaborated and that plans were changed after the St. Petersburg Times started asking questions.

"A cover-up ensued after a light was shined on this particular project," Meggs said.

Late in the afternoon, Destin City Manager Greg Kisela testified that there was never an attempt to get funding for an emergency operations center at the airport prior to Odom's involvement.

Kisela also testified that he ran into Odom in 2007 and asked about the budget request (the one that went nowhere, because those types of lawmaker-sponsored projects were banned in 2007 due to a poor state economy). "He said that grant request would not be forthcoming and basically it would be repackaged as an educational facility," Kisela said.

Meggs says that's evidence of an attempt to conceal the project.

Time ran out before the defense could cross-examine Kisela; that will happen when the trial resumes at 9 a.m. today.

The 48-year-old Sansom, once one of the most powerful men in the state Legislature, sat silent by his attorney throughout the day, though he nodded in agreement with points in his favor. To reinforce Sansom's family man image, his wife and two of his daughters sat behind him.

Odom sat a few seats away, and he and Sansom did not make eye contact.

Sansom smiled when Circuit Judge Terry Lewis, in pretrial business before jurors were seated, seemed inclined to limit evidence about the job Sansom took at Northwest Florida State College on the same day he was sworn in as speaker in November 2008. It was that job that first raised questions about Sansom's budget appropriations.

On the other hand, Lewis appeared likely to allow evidence that in 2009 Sansom got a job from an insurance agent who owed Odom money and told investigators he expected his debt would be "lessened."

Sansom and Odom have an experienced defense team and they were well prepared Monday. The lawyers said that they would present numerous witnesses who would have welcomed an emergency operations center at the airport (despite what some county officials say) and that the project would have in fact been directly beneficial to Odom had it gone through the Legislature as initially requested.

As Sansom had a "responsibility" to seek money for worthwhile projects, as his attorney said, Odom had a right as an "American" and a "Floridian" to seek help from elected officials, attorney Jimmy Judkins said.

"We submit to you that by the end of the case, the evidence will be overwhelming that he is not guilty of stealing money and he is not guilty of conspiring to steal money and that your verdict will be not guilty on both charges," Judkins said.

As Ray Sansom case opens, defense vigorously denies charges 03/21/11 [Last modified: Monday, March 21, 2011 10:32pm]
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