Testimony in Ray Sansom trial focuses on airport project funding

TALLAHASSEE — The top emergency management official in Okaloosa County testified at the Ray Sansom trial Tuesday that he told a developer he did not think state funding would be awarded for a building at Destin Airport because of its location.

But the developer, Sansom's co-defendant Jay Odom, was unfazed.

"He wasn't concerned about that. He said he knew how to get funding from the state, he knew people," public safety director Dino Villani said.

"Did he name any of those people?" Leon County State Attorney Willie Meggs asked. "Yes. Ray Sansom, Allen Boyd, couple of other legislators."

Meggs hopes the testimony convinces the jury that Odom, a major Republican campaign contributor, was determined to get the state to pay for a building he planned to use as an aircraft hangar for his jet business — and that Sansom was his accomplice in the state Legislature.

Villani also testified that in December 2008 — more than a year after the $6 million was appropriated — he attended a meeting about the use of the airport building that was led by Sansom, who was then working at Northwest Florida State College.

Meggs has said the meeting was evidence of a cover-up and he's likely to raise that point in the trial.

Sansom and Odom have been charged with grand theft and deny wrongdoing.

Villani's testimony came on the second day of the trial and was followed by another key prosecution witness, longtime legislative budget aide Mike Hansen, who told the jury that in 2007 Sansom handed him a note indicating he wanted the airport project funded and that it was a top priority.

The request came during a year in which state funds were scarce. The note included the words, "per S.D. to fund." S.D. is shorthand for speaker-designate, which Sansom was at the time.

When the item appeared in the budget, there was no mention of the airport.

To Meggs, it is a central component in how Sansom circumvented normal budget procedures and disguised the project. Odom originally tried to get funding through a member project, often described as "turkeys" in Tallahassee and similar to "earmarks" in the parlance of Washington, D.C.

In 2007, however, member projects were banned because of a poor state economy. Sansom, who once said he was unaware of Odom's request, got the money from a pool for education projects. It was awarded to Northwest Florida State College.

Cross-examination allowed defense attorneys to work a key argument: that Sansom broke no legislative rules and that it's common for high ranking officials such as Sansom to get projects in the budget.

In a long and sometimes complex discussion of the state budget, Hansen explained that Sansom's project would have also had to get approval from the Senate.

Hansen appeared uncomfortable on the stand — sitting in front of his old boss, Sansom — and stumbled in what the defense may have thought was an easy question that would help their case: Did Sansom violate any rules of the House?

"That's a question that I don't think I'm prepared to answer," Hansen said. But when pressed he replied, "I'm not aware of any."

The defense fared better on the cross-examination of another state employee, Skip Martin, who also saw the note from Sansom. It included a reference to Destin Airport but the line item in the budget made no mention.

"Were you trying to hide for the world that this project was going to be at the Destin Airport?" attorney Larry Simpson asked.

"No," Martin replied.

Meggs brought out other Okaloosa County witnesses he hopes build his case:

• Randy McDaniel, an emergency management official, testified that he informed other officials involved in the planning of a possible emergency operations center at the airport that the county was not interested in putting its vehicles inside. Under cross-examination, he acknowledged that the county was building its own EOC in nearby Nice­ville and there was concern Destin's project could hurt funding. The defense suggested politics were at play.

• Ken Wolfe, the county emergency management coordinator, was shown preliminary plans for the airport building and Meggs asked him to name certain components. "Hangar . . . pilots' lounge . . . office . . . service counter," he said.

The day began with the defense team cross-examining Destin City Manager Greg Kisela. One strategy was to defuse something Kisela said Monday, that in 2007 he ran into Odom and inquired about the $6 million the city sought from the state on behalf of Odom (the project that never got funded due to a ban in 2007).

Odom, Kisela said, told him that it had been "repackaged" as an educational facility. Defense attorney Jimmy Judkins asked Kisela if there was anything sinister about that.

"It's the legislative process," Kisela replied. "I don't really understand completely how things get funded and not funded. It's not uncommon for things to be repackaged."

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

Ex-Gov. Crist

to testify today

Today could be the most high profile yet, when former Gov. Charlie Crist is expected to take the witness stand. As the controversy blossomed, Crist said he would have vetoed the $6 million had he know it could have benefited a private developer. But how much Crist says is to be seen. After the jury was excused Tuesday, defense attorneys lodged numerous objections on what Crist could say, suggesting his testimony was not relevant and could prejudice the jury against Sansom and Odom. Crist's comments will be heard before the judge who will then decide what questions are allowed. Court is expected to resume at 9 a.m. Follow breaking news about the trial at blogs.tampabay.com/buzz.

Testimony in Ray Sansom trial focuses on airport project funding 03/22/11 [Last modified: Wednesday, March 23, 2011 12:33am]

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