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Florida House speaker gets college funds for friend's proposal

Ray Sansom got a college job the day he became speaker.

Ray Sansom got a college job the day he became speaker.

TALLAHASSEE — As House Speaker Ray Sansom funneled millions in tax dollars to the college that now employs him, the list of school projects included an airport building first requested by a developer who has contributed heavily to Sansom's campaigns.

In 2007, Sansom quietly secured $6-million to build an emergency training center at the Destin Airport on land controlled by the developer: Jay Odom, a friend of Sansom and owner of a jet business.

Odom had sought state funding for a similar emergency-oriented structure through the city of Destin in 2007. His plan was to build a hurricane-proof hangar on the vulnerable peninsula that his business would use most of the time, but then turn over to emergency officials during natural disasters. Although city officials endorsed Odom's proposal, he got no state money for the plan.

Now, groundbreaking is near on the new college building that Sansom arranged, and classrooms seem secondary in the design.

The bulk of the 30,000-square-foot building is an open two-story-tall, hangar-sized room. Odom says he has no plans to use the space to park his jets, but the manager of his airport operation, Bill Blackford, said in an interview that was the idea.

College officials say emergency vehicles will fit in the large room, and also say there's "no agreement" to put jets in the new building. But architectural plans provided by the college refer to an "aircraft hangar" and "aircraft-related occupancies."

The confusion adds to the murkiness of a project that some Destin residents say is unnecessary. And it further darkens the cloud now hanging over Florida's brand-new speaker of the House, who recently joined the staff of the college he has showered with tax money in recent years.

Sansom — who got the unadvertised $110,000 job at Northwest Florida State College on the same day this November that he was sworn in as House speaker — insists he is only looking out for the community. 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. "He wasn't involved with me. I worked with the college."

E-mail records, however, show that Sansom, Odom and college president Bob Richburg were in contact with one another about the airport project.

Odom said Blackford, who represents the business before a local airport committee, was "confused" and "mistaken" when he said Odom's company planned to use the college facility for jet storage. Odom acknowledged that large jets will not fit into his own hangars but said he has no plan to use the college space.

Still, public records show that Odom was not just a major force in getting state money for the airport project, it was his idea.

Odom is a real estate developer and owner of Destin Jet, a fixed-base operator with a long-term lease from the county for seven acres at Destin Airport. Odom already has storm-proof hangars at the airport, but they will not fit bigger aircraft such as a Gulfstream or Falcon 900.

In January 2007, Odom got the Destin City Council to pass a resolution asking the state for $6-million in funding, according to minutes of the meeting. At the time, Odom's plan called for the money to be used to harden the facility he was building and permit emergency officials to use it during a storm.

"I felt it was a good gesture for the area," said Larry Williges, who was on the City Council at the time. "Now I feel misled. The concept of the college being involved never came before us."

About the same time Odom was seeking the city's help, insurers were balking at his plan for using metal hangars at all, according to news reports. Though the structures would be built to withstand a hurricane, insurers would not take a risk with metal buildings that close to the water. Millions in state money to harden the structures could make that problem go away.

As the dual-purpose idea surfaced, the operator of the existing jet terminal at the airport, Miracle Strip Aviation, offered his building for emergency space. In a letter dated Jan. 9, 2007, to Destin's city manager, director Kelvin Espada, wrote: "I look forward to presenting you and your staff with a tour … and explaining why it is not necessary to utilize Florida taxpayers money to create a facility that is already in existence."

The tour never happened.

At some point, it's unclear when, the plan switched from fortifying Odom's buildings to constructing something entirely separate. And the plan went from being an emergency operations center to a training facility, to be owned by the college. Odom's hangars have been built, but the college facility won't begin construction until early next year.

In January 2008, Odom persuaded the Okaloosa County Commission to let him sublease about a half-acre of the airport land he was leasing from the county to Northwest Florida State College. His fee: $1 a year.

The plan, Blackford of Destin Jet said, is to use the college's hangar space. The only time it would not be available would be during a major storm, when the space would be used as a staging area for emergency workers.

Sansom, a 46-year-old former Okaloosa County commissioner, said he has long envisioned a staging area for emergency workers in Destin. When the winds kick up during a storm, bridges become impassable, Sansom said. He said he wants a safe place to store emergency workers and their equipment so they can get to work faster after a major storm.

• • •

Odom, 52, is a major player in the Destin-Fort Walton Beach area, having developed hundreds of residential and commercial properties. Sansom rents his district legislative office space, at taxpayer expense, in a Destin building Odom owns.

When Sansom flies around the state on official Republican business, he often does so in Odom's aircraft. The state GOP pays the bill.

Odom has been a generous contributor to Sansom, both as a county commissioner and a state representative. In 2006-07, Odom's companies gave Sansom $16,000, according to state records.

But that pales in comparison to the $100,000 that Odom's Crystal Beach Development gave on Sept. 4 to a political committee controlled by House Republican leaders, including Sansom.

First elected in 2002, Sansom has been a legislator on the rise. The spring of 2007 was an important one as he began his first legislative session as the chief budget writer in the House, a powerful position that presaged his eventual role as speaker.

Sansom took over as Florida's budget began a downturn from which it has not yet recovered as the state and national economies continue to falter.

But Sansom took care of Northwest Florida State College. He never submitted a formal Community Budget Issue Request, which would be online and open to public scrutiny. Instead, Sansom added the $6-million airport project to a list of items funded from a pool of money designed for school construction.

That decision was pivotal. Now, the airport building would be a college project and the emphasis shifted from an emergency operations center to an educational facility.

"Nobody seems to be able to explain this very well. It just doesn't make any sense," said Destin resident Jan Barr, who has asked the county's Sheriff's Office to look into the dealings. "It started off as one thing and turned into something else. Why did the college get drawn in at all?"

College president Richburg defended the money, calling the project a "wonderful opportunity."

The money Sansom got from the state came from the same pot he has used in recent years to steer tens of millions to Northwest Florida State College.

Last week, the Times/Herald Tallahassee Bureau reported that in this year's budget, Sansom transformed a $1-million appropriation into $25.5-million one to renovate and add to space at the college's main campus in Nice­ville. He also slipped in $750,000 as startup money for a college "leadership institute."

A closer look at public records shows that in 2007, Sansom not only got $6-million for the airport property but tacked on $3-million to a $13.6-million request for a Community Services Complex at the college that will include a 2,400-seat basketball arena doubling as a hurricane shelter. The complex will be the new home for Okaloosa's emergency operations center.

At the June groundbreaking, Sansom donned a white hardhat, climbed into the seat of a John Deere backhoe and took the first scoop of earth.

Times/Herald Bureau staff writer Steve Bousquet contributed to this report. Alex Leary can be reached at aleary@sptimes.com or (850) 224-7263.

Florida House speaker gets college funds for friend's proposal 12/06/08 [Last modified: Saturday, December 13, 2008 9:24pm]

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