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Lawyers for Sansom challenge prosecutor's handling of Tallahassee corruption case

TALLAHASSEE — The prosecutor in the Ray Sansom case was put on trial himself Friday for what his opposing lawyers say is unethical behavior.

A former Gainesville circuit judge testified that State Attorney Willie Meggs acted improperly and "tried to prosecute his case in the media." Meggs called another judge as a witness, who testified that she didn't recall "anything inappropriate" in his conduct.

The hearing is an effort by lawyers for ex-House speaker Sansom and two co-defendants to have Meggs thrown off the case for prosecutorial misconduct.

Though testimony concluded Friday, lawyers have another month to submit closing written arguments before Judge Terry Lewis can decide whether Meggs can remain on the case.

Sansom, Destin developer Jay Odom and former Northwest Florida State College president Bob Richburg face grand theft charges for their role in inserting $6 million into the state budget to pay for a combination emergency operations center and airplane hangar to house Odom's jets.

A key portion of Friday's hearing focused on Meggs' conduct during proceedings in 2009 before the grand jury that indicted Sansom and Richburg. Defense lawyers played several clips of Meggs' questioning witnesses during the closed-door hearings, including one point where he says, "It stinks to high heaven. It just has a rotten smell to it."

Larry Turner, a former judge for eight years who is now a private attorney, testified that Meggs improperly influenced both grand jurors through his handling of their deliberations, and the general public with his statements to the media.

"He cannot try his case in the media," Turner said. "And if Mr. Meggs doesn't know that, he should know it."

During questioning Friday by Meggs, Turner added: "It's a very powerful role you're in. I think you took unfair advantage."

Jackie Fulford, a Tallahassee circuit judge and former assistant to Meggs, later testified on behalf of the prosecutor. Fulford helped with the Sansom case before she became a judge about a year ago.

Fulford testified that during her decade in Meggs' office, she has come to expect a certain level of sarcasm from him. She also noted that he and Richburg had a few testy exchanges during the grand jury testimony.

"Beyond that, my recollection was it was not combative," she told Meggs. "As I was sitting in the grand jury, I don't recall anything improper happening."

Fulford also said the grand jurors "appeared to be frustrated" by Richburg's testimony about the $6 million building at the college.

During his questioning of Richburg, Meggs repeatedly referred to the building as a hangar: "You can call it anything you want to call it, but it's a dadgum aircraft hangar."

Richburg denied several times that the building was a hangar and instead said it would be used for classroom space and for storing emergency vehicles during a hurricane.

Meggs also accepted full responsibility and apologized for releasing transcripts of Sansom and Richburg's testimony, which were supposed to be kept secret. He said he would accept it if Judge Lewis held him in contempt.

Lee Logan at llogan@sptimes.com or (850) 224-7263.

Lawyers for Sansom challenge prosecutor's handling of Tallahassee corruption case 08/20/10 [Last modified: Friday, August 20, 2010 10:23pm]
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