TAMPA — State Rep. Kevin Ambler told a civic group Friday that he believes indicted former House Speaker Ray Sansom will be cleared on the official misconduct charge that led to his ouster.
"He's one of the most honorable representatives I've ever served with," the Lutz Republican told the Tiger Bay Club of Tampa Bay Friday.
Ambler roomed with Sansom during their early years in the House. "All I can tell you is you've only seen a small fraction of the facts," he said.
A former federal and military prosecutor, Ambler accused the St. Petersburg Times of leaving out "a great deal" in reporting on an airport hangar project that led to the indictment.
And he accused Leon County State Attorney Willie Meggs of running a "kangaroo court" and pursuing a partisan agenda to vault his own profile.
"(The grand jury's report) was written by the prosecutor, who is a Democrat, and has his own agenda and political aspirations in my opinion," Ambler told the luncheon crowd.
Afterward, Ambler said he believes Meggs is planning to seek higher office and "wouldn't be shocked" if he runs for attorney general. Ambler himself is considering whether to run for that post, though he has filed to run for state Senate next year.
Meggs, who turns 66 next month, said Ambler doesn't know what he's talking about.
"I don't know this representative," Meggs said. "He doesn't know me. I don't know where he gets his information."
He will be 69 years old when his current term is up, he said.
"I don't have any political aspirations to do anything after that, unless an opening comes up for dictator. I think I'd be a good dictator," he said.
Sansom was indicted last month by a grand jury on a felony charge that he falsified the state budget in 2007 to land a $6 million building project for tiny Northwest Florida State College in Niceville. The building was billed as a training facility for first responders that could double as an emergency operations center if storms threatened that stretch of the Panhandle.
The indictment followed a series of stories by the St. Petersburg Times/Miami Herald Tallahassee bureau documenting similarities between the building and an aircraft hangar long sought by Jay Odom, a developer friend of Sansom's and major GOP donor. The stories also revealed that Sansom accepted a $110,000 job at the college after steering $35 million to the school over the two years.
Among other things, Ambler said the stories failed to highlight Sansom's years-long fight to get an emergency operations center for the area. And he said the grand jury never heard from Odom, or other legislative officials with knowledge of how the budget process works.
Odom declined an offer to voluntarily testify before the grand jury, which did hear from Sansom's Senate budget counterpart, Lisa Carlton, R-Osprey, and Mike Hansen, Sansom's top budget staffer. The county is already paying for a new emergency operations/911 center at the college campus in Niceville in an elevated region miles away from the airport.
Ambler rattled off influential legislators who have managed to net big spending projects in their districts. And he said all legislators know what they are voting for ahead of time.
This was different, Meggs said.
"They weren't voting for a library and got a fire truck," he said. "These folks voted for a multiuse building and got an aircraft hangar."
Ambler was invited to the Tiger Bay Club meeting along with state Reps. Ed Homan, R-Tampa, and Dan Gelber, D-Miami Beach, as part of legislative session roundup. They were asked about Sansom's indictment and whether it had brought budgeting reform to the Legislature.
Gelber, also a former federal prosecutor who is considering a run for attorney general, said he was "a little shocked" by Ambler's response.
"Notwithstanding the case itself, it's a little off the reservation for an elected official to be accusing another elected official of something that horrible unless they have some proof of it," Gelber said. "To say someone is trying to deprive someone else of liberty out of partisan gain is stunning."
Times staff writers Adam Smith and Alex Leary contributed to this report. Bill Varian can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (813) 226-3387.