In a dramatic end to a trial nearly two years in the making, criminal charges against former House Speaker Ray Sansom were abruptly dropped Friday after prosecutors said a judge limited evidence of an alleged conspiracy to get $6 million in state funding for an airport building a developer wanted to use.
Flanked by friends and his lawyers, Sansom, 48, said it was vindication.
"First I want to thank God," he said, then praised his attorneys. "When I first met with them, they said 'Ray, the truth will set you free' and we saw that today."
Asked if he would have done anything differently, Sansom replied, "absolutely not."
Leon County State Attorney Willie Meggs also dropped the case against developer Jay Odom. The men had been charged with grand theft and conspiracy to commit grand theft. The $6 million was steered to Northwest Florida State College, where Sansom took a job on the same day he was sworn in as speaker of the Florida House in 2008.
Sansom and Odom agreed to pay about $103,000 each to the college — two-thirds of the amount the college spent on planning the airport building. The trustees scrapped the project after grand jury indictments were handed down in April 2009 and then-Gov. Charlie Crist asked for the money back.
The case unraveled on the fifth day of trial, just before a lunch break.
The jury was out and defense lawyers raised objections to testimony Meggs planned to introduce to establish a conspiracy. He was going to bring up a key witness, former college president Bob Richburg, who was also charged but two weeks ago agreed to testify against Sansom and Odom.
Richburg, Meggs later said, would have described conversations with Sansom and Odom about the airport project prior to Sansom getting the money. Meggs also planned to introduce e-mails showing conversations about the building.
But the defense mounted a challenge, saying the state had to prove there was an illegal agreement.
"There's no evidence of conspiracy because there's no evidence of an illegal agreement," attorney Larry Simpson said.
After a lengthy discussion, Circuit Judge Terry Lewis said, "I don't think you have enough to show a conspiracy." He said several college employees and an architect said they were aware of the private use.
Meggs had argued that college trustees did not (two testified during the trial) and neither did other legislators.
But if he could not lay the ground for the conspiracy — the planning for a hangar and attempts to conceal its nature that he said were clear before Sansom got the money — Meggs said his case was damaged.
What's more, Meggs said he was limited because jury instructions said, "the passage of legislation, including an appropriations bill, by itself, cannot constitute theft by any of the defendants."
So during lunch, Meggs offered a deal to the defendants. He would drop the charges if they agreed to wrongdoing, did community service and paid restitution.
In the end, Sansom and Odom only agreed to pay the money, and Sansom's attorney, Steve Dobson, said his client resisted that as well. Sansom blamed Meggs and the news media.
Dobson declared, "They were not guilty."
Meggs maintained there was wrongdoing and attributed the defeat to "fundamental" differences in understanding of conspiracy law with Lewis.
"I agree the state was not able to carry its burden of establishing a conspiracy with the court," Meggs said. "And so if I can't establish a conspiracy with the court before the appropriation, I can't get in statements of co-conspirators after the appropriation. And that's what all our evidence is about, is what they did after the appropriation was put into place."
Richburg, Meggs said, would have told the jury about conversations with Sansom and Odom about the airport building before Sansom got the money in the 2007 budget.
He planned to show jurors several e-mails to support his theory, including one from April 3, 2007, in which Richburg wrote to Sansom about the deal involving Odom.
"Jay and I agreed that the project is to be held close until after your actions and until after we receive guidance from you," Richburg wrote to Sansom's official House e-mail account on April 3, 2007. (At an earlier hearing, Sansom's attorney said there was no evidence he opened the message.)
In an interview with investigators, Richburg said the project was put at Destin Airport because it would benefit Odom. He never appeared before the jury.
Sansom said the money came late in the legislative session and denied knowing that Odom had sought $6 million from the state for an airport building. Odom's plan was to use it for his private jet business, Destin Jet, but clear out during a storm so local officials could use it for emergency response.
That budget request, issued through the city of Destin, never went through because there was a ban on "member projects" in 2007 due to the poor state economy. Sansom told the St. Petersburg Times that he did not know about Odom's request and that he put $6 million into the budget after additional education funding became available.
He said he long envisioned an emergency operations center in Destin after seeing problems with hurricanes, and the defense pointed to various local officials who said they would have gladly used the building for emergency purposes.
The trial started Monday and more than a dozen witnesses had testified for the prosecution, leading up to its primary witness, Richburg, who agreed March 11 to testify for the prosecution.
Meggs had argued that the three men worked together to accomplish Odom's goal of getting an airplane hangar then worked to conceal it as an educational facility, contending that college officials scrambled to find a use for the building and even then planned to use half of the space. Meggs presented documents and testimony showing the bulk was for a hangar.
But the defense cut into his arguments each time and said that Sansom did not act improperly by getting state money (his was not the only late-funded project in 2007). The open space was to be filled with emergency response equipment not private planes, they said.
Odom's attorneys had said that there was nothing illegal about a citizen asking elected officials for help and that the appropriation was approved by the Legislature and not vetoed by the governor.
While it was acknowledged that Odom wanted to use the space, he would have needed a lease approved with the college trustees, attorneys said.
"Nobody could have won this case," Dobson said.
Noting that Meggs first charged the men with official misconduct then changed it to grand theft after the charges were mostly gutted in court, Dobson said, "I would say the state attorney lost big time."
State law allows a public official who is charged with a crime to seek payment of legal fees if he's not convicted when the charges arose from his public duties. Dobson said he plans to seek payment from the Legislature.
Dobson said he did not know yet what the total fees would be but "because of Mr. Meggs' dogged pursuit, it's going to be big."
Federal investigators have been looking at some aspect of Sansom and Odom's dealings (an FBI agent sat in on some of the depositions of witnesses in the state case). Asked about that, Dobson said "if they are charged in federal court, we'll fight that, too. If I am retained."
Times senior correspondent Lucy Morgan contributed to this report.