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Eleven witnesses testify to grand jury investigating state Rep. Ray Sansom

State Rep. Ray Sansom, R-Destin, left, leaves a grand jury hearing with his attorney Pete Antonacci, right, Thursday at the Leon County Courthouse in Tallahassee. The grand jury is investigating Sansom’s dealings with a college in the Panhandle.

COLIN HACKLEY | Special to the Times

State Rep. Ray Sansom, R-Destin, left, leaves a grand jury hearing with his attorney Pete Antonacci, right, Thursday at the Leon County Courthouse in Tallahassee. The grand jury is investigating Sansom’s dealings with a college in the Panhandle.

TALLAHASSEE

A grand jury investigating state Rep. Ray Sansom's dealings with a Panhandle college went home Thursday without rendering a decision, setting the stage for a potentially dramatic morning.

The jury, set to return today at 10 a.m., met behind closed doors Thursday for eight hours and took testimony from 11 witnesses, including Sansom and Northwest Florida State College president Bob Richburg.

It was a day of little flourish, with witness after witness entering the Leon County courtroom and then leaving quickly without a word.

But Sansom, 46, once the third most powerful Republican in state government, provided a striking image as he entered the courtroom just across the street from the Capitol where his colleagues were debating the state budget.

"I always enjoy talking to citizens," the ousted House speaker, said after an hour and 20 minutes of testimony. He then boarded a third-floor elevator and rode to the ground floor alone.

A short while later, the 18-member jury told State Attorney Willie Meggs it was not ready to decide. Meggs was asked to draw up some documents the jury will use in its decision.

"We've got some work to do," Meggs said, leaving the courtroom.

The grand jury can either hand up indictments, issue a critical report called a presentment that finds no criminal charges, or it can do nothing. It is possible Sansom's lawyer, Pete Antonacci, could seek to supress the findings.

Judging from witnesses who were called, the grand jury has been exploring several avenues since it began the investigation this year.

• The unadvertised, $110,000 a year job Sansom was given at the college on the same day last November he became House speaker. He resigned the job two months later after a firestorm of criticism statewide.

• The roughly $35 million in extra or accelerated funding the college got during the two years that Sansom controlled the House budget. Last year, Sansom added $24.5 million when the Department of Education had recommended $1 million in funding. Sansom has said the budget process is open and transparent and the final product is voted on by all lawmakers.

• The $6 million Sansom got for a college emergency operations and training center that is being built on the same footprint of an aircraft hangar/emergency operations center that Sansom's friend Jay Odom wanted to construct with state money.

• The college trustees meeting that Sansom helped arrange last spring with Richburg at a private club at Florida State University. The college publicized the meeting, but did so in a newspaper 150 miles from Tallahassee, raising questions about whether the public was properly notified of the meeting in accordance with the state's Sunshine Law.

Witnesses included Okaloosa County emergency management officials, former state Sen. Lisa Carlton, R-Osprey, who was Senate appropriations chief for the two years that Sansom was House budget chairman, and House staffer Mike Hansen, Sansom's top budget aide.

A representative from the Department of Education answered questions as did a former staffer at the University Club.

Odom was invited to testify but did not show up.

While most witnesses left without comment — they are barred from discussing testimony but can make general statements — a former Okaloosa County official who testified told reporters the airport building, "just doesn't make a whole lot of sense."

Eleven witnesses testify to grand jury investigating state Rep. Ray Sansom 04/16/09 [Last modified: Thursday, April 16, 2009 10:40pm]
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