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Former House Speaker Sansom charged with perjury in hangar case

TALLAHASSEE — A grand jury investigating Ray Sansom's ties to a Panhandle college issued a second round of indictments Wednesday, accusing the ousted House speaker of lying about a developer's plans to store aircraft in a taxpayer-funded building.

The felony perjury charge is based on newly surfaced documents, including an e-mail Sansom received from the college president indicating that developer Jay Odom, who also was indicted Wednesday, would use part of the facility.

"Jay and I agreed that the project is to be held close until after your actions and until after we receive guidance from you," president Bob Richburg wrote to Sansom in April 2007 — with a subject line "Meeting with Jay."

The budget lawmakers approved a month later included $6 million Sansom appropriated for Northwest Florida State College. Sansom, R-Destin, has insisted that it was his idea and that he did not know about Odom's plans for a taxpayer-funded hangar.

"There is much documentation to the contrary," State Attorney Willie Meggs told reporters at the Leon County Courthouse after the perjury indictment was handed down.

"We've developed information that the intent and plan was for Jay Odom to use the building," Meggs said. "That was before the appropriation and even after the appropriation."

Odom, who has contributed hundreds of thousands of dollars to Sansom and other Republicans, was charged Wednesday with official misconduct for acting as a principal in securing the funding. Official misconduct is a third-degree felony punishable by a maximum five-year prison sentence and a $5,000 fine.

On April 17, the grand jury charged Sansom and Richburg with official misconduct, accusing them of mischaracterizing how the building would be used. The college has said it would be used as a first-responder training and response center, but the grand jury concluded it was really a hangar for Odom.

Sansom's attorney said the former speaker would be vindicated. "I think the evidence will show that the purpose of this funding was absolutely legitimate and appropriate," Steve Dobson said. "I fully anticipate this case going to trial, and I fully anticipate a jury returning a verdict of not guilty."

Odom's attorney, James Judkins, issued a statement declaring similar innocence. "He is not a public figure and he never suggested or advised anyone to falsify any official record or document as alleged," Judkins said. Odom was asked to voluntarily testify before the grand jury in April but didn't show up.

A trial could be months away and possibly stretch into next year, Sansom's last in public office. Asked whether Sansom should resign early, Gov. Charlie Crist demurred Wednesday: "I think that's a decision for a different day."

•••

The charges come against the background of a series of articles by the St. Petersburg Times/Miami Herald Tallahassee Bureau detailing how Sansom, in the two years he controlled the House budget, steered about $35 million in extra or accelerated construction money to the small college.

The questions arose after Sansom took a $110,000 part-time job at the college on the same day in November that he became speaker of the House, one of the most powerful positions in state politics.

Sansom defended the appropriations as open and transparent, saying the budget was available for all lawmakers to see before a final vote.

With intensifying media coverage and investigations mounting, Sansom resigned the college job after two months and said he would step down as speaker temporarily.

But fellow Republicans permanently ousted him, seeing the controversy as a distraction. A political committee that Sansom controlled in part and that took in $100,000 from Odom was disbanded. And the GOP stopped using Odom's aircraft.

Richburg has felt the sting, too. He was fired after the indictment in April but is contesting the move. The college trustees on Tuesday voted to consider mediation. The college has abandoned the project, which was only in planning stages, and the money will go to other colleges next year.

•••

All along, the most serious question surrounding Sansom has been the $6 million for the building at Destin Airport.

The Times/Herald uncovered numerous overlapping connections between the college plans and Odom's designs for a taxpayer-funded hangar that he promised to turn over to emergency officials during a storm.

Odom had been trying to build a private jet business at Destin Airport since 2004 but suffered a string of legal and other setbacks.

Then in 2006, he proposed getting $6 million in state construction money to build a hurricane-proof hangar on some of the land he had leased from Okaloosa County to open Destin Jet.

In exchange for public financing, Odom would turn the building over to emergency officials during natural disasters for use as a staging area. Destin city officials endorsed the project, but Odom never got state money.

About the same time, Sansom said he approached Northwest Florida State College with an offer: He could get the school $6 million in unbudgeted money if the school wanted to build a training facility for first responders that could double as an emergency operations staging area in times of natural disaster. The school said yes and Sansom inserted the money into the budget.

•••

Over the past six months, the Times/Herald has made numerous records requests to the college regarding the project, but that e-mail was not included. Nor were scores of other documents recently turned over to investigators.

A college spokeswoman, Sylvia Bryan, said that while compiling files last month, "archived e-mails were found that contained both materials previously supplied and materials that appeared not to have been previously supplied (and of which college staff were not previously aware.)"

A college attorney on Wednesday provided the records, contained on a computer disc, to the Times/Herald.

Among them is a memo from Odom to Richburg dated April 1, 2008, in which Odom outlines how a lease between the college and Destin Jet could be structured.

After the college builds the facility, "Destin Jet would like to lease the use of a portion of the facility at times when it is not being used for the college's needs."

But Bryan again Wednesday pointed to a lease signed in November of the same year that states "nothing in this sublease is to be interpreted as creating a partnership or joint venture between any of the parties. Only a landlord/tenant relationship is created hereby."

It also includes a clause that allows Odom first priority to "re-purchase the leasehold interest in the facility" if the college decided to cease using the building for training.

Times/Herald staff writers Marc Caputo and Steve Bousquet contributed to this report.

Who is who

Ray Sansom: The Destin Republican remains in the House but was removed as speaker due to his legal problems. He was indicted in April on a felony charge of official misconduct over inserting $6 million in the state budget for a building at Destin Airport that the grand jury said was designed to benefit a private developer. On Wednesday, a felony perjury charge was added, accusing Sansom of saying he was unaware that a private citizen would use the building.

Bob Richburg: He was fired as president of Northwest Florida State College after being indicted on official misconduct and perjury charges. He is contesting his dismissal.

Jay Odom: The private developer and major political contributor who originally proposed a taxpayer-funded airport hangar. He was indicted Wednesday on an official misconduct charge.

Former House Speaker Sansom charged with perjury in hangar case 05/27/09 [Last modified: Friday, May 29, 2009 3:40pm]
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