TALLAHASSEE — Gov. Charlie Crist wants a Panhandle college to return $6 million in taxpayer money it received for an airport project at the core of criminal charges against the college president and former House Speaker Ray Sansom.
"It seems justified," Crist said Wednesday, amplifying State Attorney Willie Meggs' earlier call that Northwest Florida State College abandon the project and return the tax dollars Sansom inserted into the state budget.
Crist's remarks, which came the same day college president Bob Richburg was booked into Leon County Jail, were echoed by several lawmakers who said they may look to reclaim the money if the school doesn't return it voluntarily.
"It was billed as an educational expenditure, and from what I've read it's not. They ought to give it back. It's the principle of the thing," said Rep. Carl Domino, R-Jupiter.
On Friday, a grand jury in Tallahassee indicted Sansom on a felony charge of official misconduct, alleging the Destin Republican disguised the airport building as an educational project to secure state funding, even though its real purpose was to be an aircraft hangar for a developer friend and heavyweight GOP donor.
The grand jury said it believed Northwest Florida State College had "every intention" of making the open space in the building available to Jay Odom, who is opening a corporate jet business next door at Destin Airport.
During the course of an investigation by the St. Petersburg Times/Miami Herald Tallahassee Bureau, which uncovered the scheme, Richburg and Sansom insisted the building's purpose was education. They said the plan was always to build an emergency operations and student training center, even though the college building shared may traits with Odom's one-time plans for a taxpayer-funded hangar. The grand jury said local emergency officials didn't want an emergency operations center at the airport because it's close to the Gulf of Mexico and at sea level.
Sansom secured the money in 2007, when he controlled the House budget strings. But the building only recently went out to bid. Meggs said Monday that the college needs to "do the right thing" and abandon the project. "It's ridiculous," Meggs said.
"I think he's right," Crist said Wednesday.
Several of Sansom's colleagues now agree.
"Even if (the college trustees) were not aware there was a controversy, just to avoid the appearance of impropriety they should in good faith return the money," said Rep. Yolly Roberson, D-Miami.
When asked this week if the school intended to pursue construction of the controversial project, college spokeswoman Sylvia Bryan replied, "Maybe I need reading glasses, but the subject of the indictment as stated is the alleged actions of two individuals, not the investigation of a college project."
Nonetheless, she said, the college board of trustees will meet Tuesday morning to discuss that and the fate of Richburg, who is on unpaid leave.
Two of the trustees contacted Wednesday did not return phone calls seeking comment.
Richburg, who hired Sansom to a six-figure job at the college last November on the same day that Sansom became speaker, turned himself in at the Leon County Jail just before noon Wednesday. He was booked and released on his own recognizance.
Like Sansom, Richburg faces the official misconduct charge, but he also was indicted on a perjury charge for telling the grand jury there were no discussions about Odom using the facility after the college got the money.
On Wednesday, Crist suspended Richburg from the state board of directors of Workforce Florida — a post Sansom helped Richburg attain.
Sansom surrendered to authorities shortly after Friday's indictment. He has been back in Destin since then, as fellow lawmakers debate the state budget in Tallahassee. He has been excused for the entire week, and only one week remains in the regular 60-day session.
Asked whether he will return, an aide, Dort Baltes, replied: "We're making that decision day by day."