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Judge lets grand theft charge stand against former House Speaker Ray Sansom

A judge on Tuesday faulted a state attorney's behavior in the case against ousted House Speaker Ray Sansom but said it did not amount to prosecutorial misconduct and declined to dismiss the charges.

That means Sansom is moving closer to a trial, to be held early next year, on grand theft charges in which he is accused of slipping $6 million into the state budget for an airplane hangar that would benefit a friend and political contributor.

Sansom, R-Destin, along with ex-college president Bob Richburg and developer Jay Odom, argued that Leon County State Attorney Willie Meggs acted improperly in the case, including leading the grand jury along and making inflammatory public statements.

They also argued that Meggs engaged in "prosecutorial vindictiveness" because he charged the men with grand theft after official misconduct charges were partly dismissed.

Circuit Judge Terry Lewis disagreed, saying it was "entirely appropriate" for Meggs to change strategy. On Tuesday, Lewis denied the motion as well as a second motion to dismiss the charges.

Even so, Lewis said Meggs had gone too far with the grand jury and with public statements.

"In reviewing that evidence, it is clear to me that Mr. Meggs, by word and tone of voice, commented repeatedly on the credibility of the witnesses before the grand jury," Lewis wrote. "Rather than simply ask questions and get answers, to put forth evidence or information before the grand jury, he continually argued with the witnesses, and did so in a sarcastic tone of voice which clearly conveyed not only disbelief, but disgust, to the grand jurors."

Lewis chided Meggs for statements made to the news media, including those that observed the $6 million was appropriated at a time of budget cuts and when state employees haven't had a raise.

"The state attorney apparently sees nothing wrong with this, which is troubling in itself, and suggests to me the need for guidance, or restrictions, as to public statements," Lewis wrote.

Lewis said the release of a grand jury presentment and transcripts were not the result of malice or intentional, and he found no evidence to support the defense contention that Meggs instructed witnesses not to cooperate.

Sansom, who resigned from the Legislature in February as he was to go before a tribunal of his peers, inserted $6 million into the 2007 state budget and said it was for an emergency response and training center to be maintained by Northwest Florida State College. Sansom, who helped the college obtain millions more for projects, later took a $110,000 job there.

Sansom, Odom and Richburg, who lost his job at the college amid the controversy, maintain they did nothing wrong.

Documents uncovered in an investigation by the Times/Herald and during the criminal case show Odom was planning on storing aircraft in the hangar-like structure, which was to be located next to his private aircraft business at Destin Airport.

The college canceled the project after the controversy arose, and the money was returned to the state.

Odom argued in court last week that he had a First Amendment right to petition public officials, and asked Lewis to dismiss him from the case. Lewis has not ruled on that motion.

The trial is tentatively expected to begin Jan. 10.

Judge lets grand theft charge stand against former House Speaker Ray Sansom 10/19/10 [Last modified: Tuesday, October 19, 2010 10:34pm]
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