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Ray Sansom plea deal scrapped when defendants balk at jail gang duty

TALLAHASSEE — The specter of once-powerful Ray Sansom wearing a jail jumpsuit and picking up roadside trash scuttled a proposed plea deal with the former House speaker, court testimony revealed Thursday.

A rare glimpse into settlement negotiations involving the ex-lawmaker emerged during a combative all-day hearing in which lawyers for Sansom and two co-defendants are trying to have veteran State Attorney Willie Meggs thrown off the case on the grounds of prosecutorial misconduct.

The rejected agreement would have required Sansom, Destin developer Jay Odom and former Northwest Florida State College president Bob Richburg to admit to a misdemeanor charge, pay fines and participate in a sheriff's work program for at least a month.

Meggs, the top prosecutor in North Florida's six-county 2nd Judicial Circuit, testified that the three men would have all been required to plead guilty to the attempted official misconduct for their role in inserting $6 million into the state budget to pay for a combination emergency operations center and airplane hangar to house Odom's jets.

The defendants also would have had to repay the state $310,000, the amount officials paid to hire an architect to design the building. And Meggs would have required them to spend up to six months on a sheriff's work detail, picking up trash along roads while dressed in striped inmate outfits.

"There's going to be a level of humiliation involved," Meggs recalled telling the defense attorneys. Later he added: "I felt like there should be some consequence. We're just talking about $6 million in taxpayer money."

Sansom, Odom and Richburg each sat with their lawyers in the front row of the courtroom as Meggs recounted the tense negotiations that would have left them as objects of public scorn.

Defense attorneys argued that the deal was evidence of Meggs' vindictive conduct and said he was simply trying to shame Sansom.

"You intended this proposal to be mean-spirited and humiliating, right?" Hank Coxe, Richburg's attorney, asked Meggs.

Coxe noted that other elements of the offer included requiring Sansom, Richburg and Odom to sign documents admitting their guilt. Sansom would be required to resign his post as House speaker. And Richburg would have been barred for a year from setting foot on the campus of Northwest Florida State College.

"After he was discharged from the college, our information that I was receiving back was that he was still strutting around the college like he was still college president, and he was making everybody uncomfortable," said the homespun Meggs.

Defense lawyers disputed this.

If any of the three violated any part of the deal, they all would have been back in court — and the admissions of guilt could have been used against them.

The day ended without a ruling on Meggs' conduct by Circuit Judge Terry Lewis. The hearing will be continued in three weeks.

Earlier in the day, Meggs told Lewis he accepts full responsibility for releasing grand jury testimony of Sansom and Richburg to three reporters. State law restricts access to grand jury testimony in a criminal case to the parties involved.

Meggs testified that he had 16,000 pages of court documents copied to a disc at a private printing center at the request of defense lawyers, and he inadvertently included the transcripts of the grand jury testimony before they were given to three newspapers in June 2009.

"If the judge wants to hold me in contempt, I will take the punishment," Meggs said as he sucked on a piece of hard candy. "I did it. I did it inadvertently. … I can't unring that bell. I apologize to the court. I didn't intend to do it. I'm not perfect. I can't even spell the word 'hangar' correctly."

When defense lawyers grilled Meggs about what sort of statements he was legally allowed to make about the grand jury probe, the prosecutor said, "I guess I can't talk about his momma."

The hearing also revealed that Meggs and defense lawyers, once cordial friends, now have a strained relationship. One of the lawyers has known Meggs for decades. They would occasionally spend off hours bantering back and forth.

Said Meggs during Thursday's hearing: "The bantering has stopped." At one point, he complained of a sore throat, and Odom's lawyer offered him water.

With a smile on his face, Meggs said, "No. Not from you."

Lee Logan can be reached at llogan@sptimes.com or (850) 224-7263.

Ray Sansom plea deal scrapped when defendants balk at jail gang duty 07/29/10 [Last modified: Friday, July 30, 2010 10:57am]

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