Documents link House speaker, friend and college facility

Although college officials dispute it, public records show that the airport facility Northwest Florida State College plans to build with tax money secured by House Speaker Ray Sansom is the same hangar Sansom's friend wanted for his jet business.

Sansom, R-Destin, says critics are unfairly blurring the lines between the two airport projects.

But interviews, planning documents from the city of Destin and the college, and e-mails between developer Jay Odom, Sansom and the school show inextricable links between what Odom requested and what the college is now planning to build.

• Destin city officials have only one approved site plan for the location, the one submitted by Odom. That plan refers to the space set aside for the college as a "hangar."

• Odom's development company worked as a go-between for the college with the city to ensure the school could use Odom's development order. The college must still submit building plans.

• The college's own plans refer to Odom's project and call for an extra thick floor for "aircraft storage."

• A city official and the manager of Odom's private jet company said the proposed two-story college building is part of Odom's plan to block noise from nearby homes, mitigating a problem that nearly prevented Odom from building on the airport site.

"We've integrated structures and walls to create a buffer," said Ken Gallander, the city's community development director.

Indeed, the hangar that Odom had proposed using $6-million in state money to build is virtually the same as what Northwest Florida State plans to build with $6-million Sansom obtained during the 2007 legislative session.

About the only difference: The college has added some classrooms.

The questions surrounding the airport deal, first reported by the Times/Herald Tallahassee Bureau, could be the most serious facing Sansom, 46, as he deals with the backlash from taking a $110,000 job at Northwest Florida State a month ago — the same day he was sworn in as House speaker.

Over the past two years, when he was the top budget writer in the House, Sansom steered $35-million in extra tax dollars to the school, including the money for the airport. Sansom has defended his largesse as no different from what other lawmakers do, and says the money he used cannot go toward other areas of the budget.

The question of whether Sansom's college job could be seen as a reward for his skill with funding has consumed the capital, providing a distraction as lawmakers grapple with a $2.3-billion deficit. Newspaper editorial boards have been highly critical, as has Joe Scarborough, the former Panhandle congressman and current MSNBC personality who said Sansom was once an ally. Other lawmakers are getting angry messages from constituents.

But the airport project may be different. Last week, the head of the Florida Democratic Party, Karen Thurman, formally asked the U.S. Attorney in Tallahassee to investigate the airport ties raised in the first newspaper story.

Sansom declined to be interviewed for this article, as did the college president and Odom's company.

In an interview with an Okaloosa County newspaper — Sansom has stopped talking with reporters in Tallahassee — Sansom suggested critics were blurring the lines between the projects. He dismissed the criticism as politically motivated.

"That's what partisan people do. I think that's why people are getting more and more nauseated by politics," Sansom told the Northwest Florida Daily News.

Odom has said he gave up on his original idea, which was to get public money for a hurricane-proof hangar that he would use for the largest jets at his company but would vacate in times of emergency. The Destin City Council endorsed his proposal, but Odom got no funding for it.

And college officials said their airport project isn't a hangar but a training center for students in emergency response that will be used by officials during a storm.

Yet the only significant thing that appears to have changed is Odom saying he doesn't plan to park his jets in the college building. The manager of his jet operation said that was the plan, but after the Times/Herald started asking questions, Odom insisted otherwise, saying his employee was "confused."

After the story was published, a college spokeswoman said the school owns some fire trucks and ambulances that would be parked there — something the college had not previously said.

Sansom has said little about his involvement and has denied knowing that Odom got the Destin City Council to pass a resolution in January 2007 to seek state financing for his airport facility. The passage was covered in Sansom's local newspapers.

"It doesn't benefit (Odom) at all," Sansom said in a previous interview about the college building. "He wasn't involved with me. I worked with the college."

Sansom said questions about Odom should be directed to Northwest Florida State.

But e-mails obtained under Florida's open records law show coordination between the main players.

In November 2007, after Sansom got the $6-million into the budget, James Richburg, president of Northwest Florida State, wrote Sansom to say he needed to talk to him "ASAP" about an option for the Destin Emergency Operations Center, concluding, "I have not talked to Jay and will not until we talk." A college spokeswoman previously said that referred to a location near Destin City Hall but did not elaborate.

Beyond that, Richburg kept Sansom updated on how things were proceeding as the Odom hangar became a college project. Odom has leased 12 acres at the airport from the county and, in turn, Odom is subleasing about a half acre to the college for $1 a year.

In January, Richburg notified Sansom that the lease with Odom, which had to be approved by the Okaloosa County Commission, had gone through. After the vote, Richburg sent Sansom an e-mail telling him the lease "passed without a whimper" and was "lost in the storm" of other issues.

Richburg also tells Sansom that "a second item from our friend drew tremendous objection and has been set for a workshop." The friend he refers to: Jay Odom.

The most clear — though still unexplained — link between the Odom hangar and the college project came in March, as Richburg and Sansom prepared a presentation for a secretive meeting they arranged for the college board of trustees.

"Somewhere-somehow," Richburg advised Sansom, "you should acknowledge how much you appreciate the Board accepting the responsibility of the Destin Special Purpose Center — first responder and homeland security training and local EOC."

Alex Leary can be reached at aleary@sptimes.com or (850) 224-7263.

Documents link House speaker, friend and college facility 12/20/08 [Last modified: Saturday, December 27, 2008 5:59pm]

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