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Prosecution closing in on its case in Ray Sansom trial

TALLAHASSEE — Closing in on the end of its case, the prosecution in the Ray Sansom trial Thursday called on a string of witnesses in an attempt to prove to jurors that the former lawmaker disguised funding for an aircraft hangar as an educational facility.

A consultant was asked to read e-mails he sent urging the president at the Panhandle college that got the $6 million appropriation to avoid naming where the building would go but to mention emergency response and training uses as a way to avoid a veto from the governor.

"If the political will is there, this provides programmatic cover," lobbyist Jeff Schembera wrote to former Northwest Florida State College president Bob Richburg on May 7, 2007, after the governor's office inquired. "Need to copy Ray and get strategy coordinated prior to sending. He should be able to intervene politically."

Later, a vice president at the college testified that indeed the school intended to lease space for aircraft storage. Sansom's co-defendant, Jay Odom, was developing a private jet business at Destin Airport and had been trying to get state funding, and the vice president's acknowledgment brought that into focus.

But as they have throughout the first four days of the trial, defense attorneys offered forceful counterpoints after each of the seven witnesses answered questions from prosecutors. Under cross-examination, Schembera told the jury that his use of "programmatic cover" was not an attempt to hide anything.

"I was being a little flippant and probably shouldn't have been in writing," Schembera said. "I was simply expressing that this provides the educational justification."

Similarly, he said he advised against naming Destin Airport as the location for the building to provide flexibility if that did not work out.

Sansom and Odom face grand theft and conspiracy charges. Richburg was also indicted but has agreed to testify against them in exchange for charges being dropped. He could take the stand today, a dramatic moment in a trial that has often been bogged down in the complexities of the state budget process.

Sansom used his clout as the House budget chairman in 2007 to get the $6 million and says he has long seen the need for an emergency operations center in Destin.

The project sidestepped the usual Department of Education process, though the defense has said repeatedly it was one of seven in 2007 that did so when money became available late in the legislative session. Four met the veto pen of then-Gov. Charlie Crist, who testified Wednesday he would have nixed Sansom's had he known more about it.

When the St. Petersburg Times first raised questions about the airport project in late 2008, the college, Odom and Sansom denied Odom would be involved. Sansom said he didn't know Odom had sought state money for a similar project before.

"It doesn't benefit him at all," Sansom said in an interview at the Capitol on Dec. 3, 2008. "He wasn't involved with me. I worked with the college."

Numerous documents have shown Odom's involvement and interest and the grand jury saw some Thursday. Gary Yancey, a vice president at the college, testified that the plan was to lease some of the open space in the building for aircraft use.

Leon County State Attorney Willie Meggs had him read minutes from a staff meeting Yancey oversaw. "The hangar for Jay's planes would be converted into Emergency Vehicle storage during an emergency."

Meggs also introduced evidence showing how in February 2009 — after the controversy erupted — official plans were changed to describe the "hangar" as a "staging area."

Defense attorneys, however, got across key arguments through Yancey. He testified that he thought leasing space to a private entity was a good idea — and not novel — to raise operational money and agreed that any deal with Odom would have needed approval of the college trustees.

"Were you trying to hide this project from anybody?" Sansom attorney Steve Dobson asked Yancey. He replied, "No, not at all."

It continued a string of seeming victories for the defense and caused Meggs to get more forceful with his witness. After the defense finished its cross-examination, Meggs pressed Yancey about a December 2008 meeting Sansom — then himself an employee of the college — held about uses of the building. It came four days after the Times first published a story about the airport funding.

"Did he have any input in the Destin project?" Meggs asked. Yancey replied, "I would say absolutely."

The momentum shifted to either side throughout the day.

Brian Shonk, a planner at the college, testified that demand for emergency training classes at that location — 15 miles from the college in Niceville — would have been low, at least to begin with. Shonk also said parking was an issue and the college considered using shuttles to bring people there, feeding Meggs' contention that the educational use was flimsy.

But under cross-examination, Shonk said he had no doubt the college would have used part of the building for classrooms. He was also shown minutes from a May 2008 meeting in which various groups, including the Okaloosa County Sheriff's Office and the city of Destin, talked about storing emergency equipment in the building during a storm.

Meggs came back and said that arrangement would only be necessary during a storm or other disaster — implying it would be empty most of the year.

Do you know who was going to use the facility when it was not used for an emergency? Meggs asked.

"No," Shonk replied.

"You were just told you could not use it?" Meggs asked.

"Yes sir."

After the prosecution rests its case, the defense will put on its own, extending the trial into next week or beyond.

Prosecution closing in on its case in Ray Sansom trial 03/24/11 [Last modified: Friday, March 25, 2011 12:08am]

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