TALLAHASSEE — The criminal case against former House Speaker Ray Sansom took a dramatic turn Friday as a co-defendant turned state's evidence and acknowledged that $6 million Sansom put in the state budget was to benefit a developer.
Bob Richburg, former president of the Panhandle college that got the money in 2007, portrayed the idea as one hatched by Sansom and Jay Odom, a friend and political contributor who wanted to use the building for his private jet business.
Asked if he knew at the time whether the building — ostensibly an emergency response and training center — was being placed at Destin Airport so Odom would benefit, Richburg flatly replied: "Yes."
The surprise turn of events dealt Sansom and Odom a significant setback as their trial is set to begin March 21. All three men had been charged with grand theft.
Now Richburg, 65, could take the witness stand against his associates.
"There's been quite a change in the landscape for us," Odom attorney Jimmy Judkins said during Friday's hearing.
Richburg, who was fired from Northwest Florida State College for his role in the scandal, also acknowledged keeping Odom's interest in the building from his board of trustees and not being truthful when a reporter asked him about the deal.
"And why was that?" a state investigator asked in an interview made public Friday.
"Because there would have been further uproar over it," Richburg replied.
Leon County State Attorney Willie Meggs expects to drop the charges as part of Richburg entering a pre-trial intervention program. Richburg would have to testify truthfully, plus he would have to perform 250 hours of community service and give $103,333 to Northwest Florida State College, a third of the $310,000 the college had to reimburse to the state. (That's how much of the $6 million was spent on planning before the project was canceled amid the controversy.)
Richburg would preserve his state retirement benefits, however, a significant sum after decades in higher education. "He was used," Meggs said Friday of Richburg. "He didn't personally gain anything out of it."
In another development Friday, the state made public an interview with a Fort Walton Beach insurance agent who said he gave Sansom a $7,000-a-month job in 2009 at the request of Odom.
Initially the agent, Gary Paulzak, portrayed it as goodwill toward Sansom, whose life had been "ruined in every way" by the criminal case against him. But later in an interview, Paulzak acknowledged that he owed Odom money.
"I wasn't forthright," he told prosecutors, who had asked him earlier about the debt. He said he assumed that by hiring Sansom, the debt would be "lessened."
Sansom tried to get an insurance license but was denied because he was under indictment. Still, Paulzak continued to pay him.
The scandal broke in late 2008 when Sansom, R-Destin, took a six-figure job at the college on the same day he was sworn in as speaker of the Florida House. He said he saw no conflict of interest.
The Times/Herald then reported a series of stories showing how Sansom used his powerful position as House budget chief to funnel tens of millions to the school, including $6 million for the airport building in 2007.
He and Richburg insisted that it was for an emergency operations and training center and that there would be no private use. But records and other evidence pointed to Odom's plan to use part of the building to store aircraft for his private jet business, which he built next door at Destin Airport.
When asked by investigators if he was truthful when saying there was never any intention for private use, Richburg paused for 17 seconds then said:
"I would respond to that as follows: From the time we got control of the project it was going to be for instructional use and there was a potential for private use."
That in itself is not a new acknowledgement. After being charged, the defendants pressed in court that Odom could have only used the building if he got approval from the college trustees, effectively conceding he wanted to use the facility.
Still, having Richburg say it directly is significant for Meggs.
"They must think they have a much stronger case with his testimony," said Bruce Jacob, a professor at Stetson University College of Law.
At the same time, he said, Richburg's deal could give defense attorneys a counter argument. "They could try to convince the jury that it's not fair to let him go and nail my client."
In the interview, Richburg was asked why Odom approached him about the airport project. "Because he could receive funding from Tallahassee that could be routed through the college to assist him."
What's more, Richburg said he was concerned about offending Sansom or Odom by not accepting the money, even though he said the college would not have wanted a facility at the airport.
"Did you recognize Ray Sansom to be in a position to have an influence on future funding of the college?" investigator Jim Anderson asked.
"Yes, I did," Richburg replied.
But Richburg was not a passive player.
Numerous e-mails obtained by the Times/Herald indicated he actively sought funding for other projects from Sansom and lavished the future speaker with praise and encouragement.
He hired Sansom to the $110,000 part-time job with the understanding Sansom would become a full-time employee when his legislative service was up in 2010.
Sansom, now 48, reluctantly quit the job in early 2009 and was soon ousted from his position as speaker. In February 2010, he quit the Legislature on the eve of a trial before his peers.
Richburg became president of the small school in 1987. Over the course of his career, he left a mixed record.
Richburg had been one of the so-called double dippers, a state employee who "retired" briefly then was rehired to the same job but with a pension. He got a lump sum of $553,228 in 2007 and started collecting a monthly pension of $8,803 in addition to his $228,000 annual salary.
In May 2009, the state put a freeze on his pension pending outcome of the criminal case.
Sansom has more than 21 years of creditable service in the state retirement system. He too has a legal block on his account.