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Interviews with college officials undercut Ray Sansom's claims

The college trustee and college president were chatting when the subject turned to state Rep. Ray Sansom.

"I was teasing him. I said, 'You know Ray Sansom has been a representative of the college and got us a lot of good projects and I really appreciate that. Maybe we need to have a party for him or tell him we thank him,' " trustee Wesley Wilkerson recalled. "He said, 'I'll do better than that, I'd like to give him a job, a part-time job.' "

Bob Richburg indeed gave Sansom a $110,000 job at Northwest Florida State College — on the same day last November that Sansom was sworn in as House speaker. But he and Sansom insist it was not payback for tens of millions of dollars and other favors Sansom did for his hometown college during his political ascendancy.

Wilkerson's observation is just one of many new details to emerge Friday in the criminal case against Sansom, R-Destin, and Richburg. A state investigator conducted interviews with college officials and leaders in the city of Destin and Okaloosa County, which add context to the case. Audio from the interviews were made public after being given to defense attorneys.

Among the details:

• College vice president Gary Yancey sheds light on the identity of the "user" who would be storing "multiple aircraft" in a $6 million airport building Sansom secured funding for. Yancey said he assumed the architect who sent the e-mail to him was referring to Jay Odom, a developer and friend of Sansom's who had once tried to get state funding for a hangar and planned to lease space in the college building for his corporate jet business, Destin Jet.

Yancey said it was his intention all along to make the building a hangar, so "we could possibly park airplanes in there. It didn't matter who was doing it." Investigator Jim Anderson asked if there were discussions about anyone other than Destin Jet using the space. "Only theoretically," Yancey replied. "I mean, we never mentioned anybody by name."

Did you mention Destin Jet by name? "Oh, yes," Yancey replied.

A college spokeswoman has repeatedly refused to identify the user of the hangar space for the St. Petersburg Times/Miami Herald Tallahassee Bureau. And the architect has not returned phone calls or e-mails.

Yancey's disclosure is notable because the e-mail appears to undercut Sansom's contention that Odom was never going to use the building. He told the Times/Herald that in an interview in December conducted three days before the e-mail was sent.

• Several college trustees said there was never a stated need for classroom space in Destin before Sansom got the $6 million for a building the college said would have been used for emergency operations training and response. And a college official said it was unusual for the school to get an appropriation and then develop a needs-analysis and curriculum. Usually it is the other way around.

Sansom has said money became available during the 2007 legislative session and that he called the college to see if it could use a building.

• Sansom has also said there has been a long-standing desire for an emergency operations center in Destin. But while several officials told the investigator it would be a good idea, they said there were no plans prior to Odom's proposal.

What's more, Okaloosa County Commissioner Don Amunds said he worried that a satellite EOC could hurt funding for a main county center being built on the college campus in Niceville. An FBI agent sat in on the Amunds interview and several others, a concrete confirmation of federal interest in the case.

• Destin City Manager Greg Kisela told the investigator that Richburg inquired about other land in the area that would be suitable for the college building. Kisela said he pointed out some private land and said at least one owner was "more than willing" to sell. But Richburg never followed up, Kisela said, instead going with the airport land, next to Odom's corporate jet business.

• Another college trustee, Dale Rice, said he expressed concern when Richburg told him he was going to hire Sansom. "I knew we had been blessed with a good amount of money," Rice said. And "in my little country boy mind, Ray was over there in Tallahassee when that was all going on. … It just doesn't sound right."

Alex Leary can be reached at leary@sptimes.com.

Coming up

On Tuesday, a five-member legislative panel will begin to investigate Rep. Ray Sansom's dealings with Northwest Florida State College and whether he damaged public "faith and confidence in the integrity of the Florida House of Representatives." A criminal trial is scheduled to take place later this year.

Interviews with college officials undercut Ray Sansom's claims 07/31/09 [Last modified: Friday, July 31, 2009 11:46pm]

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