TALLAHASSEE — A grand jury decided Monday to launch a formal investigation into state House Speaker Ray Sansom and whether his six-figure job at a Panhandle college was payback for helping the school get millions in construction money over the past two years.
The 21-member panel concluded that Sansom's relationship with Northwest Florida State College warranted a criminal investigation after reviewing the facts outlined in a series of stories by the Times/Herald Tallahassee Bureau.
Many of the stories focused on a $6 million airport facility that Sansom added to the 2007 budget. The school hadn't requested the money but agreed to use it for a large building that will provide classroom space for first responder courses and will double as a staging area for emergency workers in time of disaster.
Questions about the building arose when the Times/Herald reported that it is nearly identical to a hangar that a longtime Sansom ally was hoping to build for his private jet business. The college plans to construct it on land it's leasing from the jet business owner, on the plot of land where he planned to put his hangar.
"We will now begin to bring them evidence and documents," including e-mails, budget records and witness statements, North Florida State Attorney Willie Meggs said of the grand jury.
Sansom, R-Destin, quickly issued a statement declaring his innocence.
"I have acted honestly in all matters, including in my work as a state legislator," he said. "The complaints are based on news articles, not personal knowledge of the facts. Once the facts are fully aired, I expect the outcome of this inquiry will be positive. I will cooperate fully and look forward to a speedy conclusion."
Despite Sansom's hope for a quick resolution, the investigation is likely to cast a shadow over the Capitol through most of the Legislature's regular session that begins March 3. The grand jury does not meet again until mid February and Meggs said it could be several months before a resolution is reached.
Grand jury investigations of state lawmakers are rare. The last time a sitting House speaker was the subject of a grand jury probe was 1991, when Rep. T.K., Wetherell, D-Daytona Beach, was one of more than two dozen lawmakers accused of accepting trips from lobbyists and not reporting them. The prosecutor: Willie Meggs. Wetherell pleaded no contest in Leon County Court to misdemeanor charges.
Also Monday, the House Rules Committee announced it would appoint a special investigator to look into the same Sansom reports after a voter made a formal complaint over the issue.
Sansom, who recently hired a criminal defense attorney, took an unadvertised $110,000-per-year vice president job at Northwest Florida State College on the same day in November he became speaker. He announced several weeks ago he was resigning the college post, but the resignation is not effective until Saturday.
Sansom controlled the House budget in the two years before being hired, and during that time, the small school got about $35 million in extra or accelerated money, according to a review of public records.
E-mails and other records show that Sansom and college president Bob Richburg worked behind the scenes to add millions to a student services building funded last spring for a leadership center at the campus.
Sansom defends his record on the issue, saying that all the money the school got was designated for educational use and couldn't have been used for other state needs. He also notes that the final budget for 2007 and 2008 is, like every other budget, a public document that anyone can read before the Legislature approves it.
Sansom and the college say the airport building cannot be used by a private individual. The lease the school has with Jay Odom, the owner of the jet business, forbids a private entity from using the building. But it includes a clause that would give Odom the right to take over the lease interest if the school decides later not to use it anymore.
Sansom told the Times/Herald that in 2007 lawmakers were eager to spend capital money to boost the economy, so he proposed to Richburg a dual-use building in which first-responders would be trained year-round but would vacate in times of emergency. Sansom denied knowing anything about Odom's plan to get $6 million in state funds for a hurricane-proof hangar that could also be used by local emergency officials.
Meggs declined to reveal what he told the jurors Monday but said it was largely based on what has been reported in the news media. He must now conduct his own research. Likely witnesses include Sansom, Richburg and Odom and perhaps House budget staff members or college trustees.
Sansom also faces a review of whether he broke House rules. Rep. Bill Galvano, the Bradenton Republican who oversees the House Rules & Calendar Council, said he is recommending a special investigator look into a citizen complaint that alleges Sansom violated a rule saying public office "is a trust to be performed with integrity in the public interest."
Galvano could have asked for a legislative panel to determine whether there is probable cause but said an independent investigator would provide more objectivity.
Legislative reaction was mixed Monday.
"What's sad is that this is all going on while we go into a session with a $4 billion deficit," said Rep. Scott Randolph, D-Orlando, a lawyer. "It makes it very difficult for him to have the authority that he needs to get things done in the House."
Rep. Kevin Ambler, R-Tampa, and also a lawyer, expressed confidence in Sansom. He said it's normal for ranking officials to get money in the budget for their districts, adding, "I don't think his area was unique."
Times/Herald staff writers Steve Bousquet and Lucy Morgan contributed to this report.