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Key document in Sansom case refers to airport early on

Prosecutors say this document shows early on that state Rep. Ray Sansom intended for a $6 million college building to be built at the Destin Airport. Prosecutors say the true purpose of the building was to store aircraft for a Sansom friend.

Prosecutors say this document shows early on that state Rep. Ray Sansom intended for a $6 million college building to be built at the Destin Airport. Prosecutors say the true purpose of the building was to store aircraft for a Sansom friend.

TALLAHASSEE — A crucial document in the criminal case against former state House Speaker Ray Sansom is one spare page: three typed lines, a handwritten note in the margin and the number 1, circled.

No studies. No reports. No backup material. In the small orbit of real power in the state Capitol, that's all it took for the House's top budget writer and soon-to-be speaker to direct $6 million to a "Jt-Use Emergency Response Workforce center w/Okal Co. Destin Airport."

The margin note, with the initials of Sansom's top aide, said "per S.D. (speaker designate) to fund." Underlined. The circled number 1 meant it was Sansom's top priority.

To prosecutors, this simple document dated April 17, 2007, shows that Sansom intended all along for the $6 million building to be built at Destin Airport. The final budget entry omits the location, which prosecutors contend was part of Sansom's attempt to conceal the true purpose of the building intended for Northwest Florida State College: to store private aircraft for Jay Odom, a Sansom friend and political contributor.

The document is one of nearly 16,000 pages prosecutors have made public by releasing them to defense attorneys as Sansom prepares for trial on felony official misconduct and perjury charges. In the mountain of documents and testimony transcripts are new details that Odom was going to store planes in the building, something Sansom, Odom and the college president long denied.

Among the newly public details:

• The man who oversaw Destin Airport testified that he contacted the Federal Aviation Administration to say that in addition to classrooms for the college, the building would serve as storage and maintenance space for Destin Jet, Odom's company.

• A college official in charge of the construction confirmed for the grand jury that the building design was similar to what Odom wanted and that massive hangar doors were to be included to accommodate aircraft in the event the college decided to lease the staging area. The official testified that he and college president Bob Richburg discussed allowing Odom's company, Destin Jet, to lease space.

• A top Okaloosa County official testified that he attended a meeting at the college on May 2, 2008 — a year after Sansom got the money — and was told that Odom, who was at the meeting, would store aircraft in the building.

All that builds on numerous ties reported during a months-long investigation by the Times/Herald Tallahassee Bureau, which triggered the grand jury. The newspaper stories began when Sansom took a six-figure, part-time job at the college on the same day last November that the Destin Republican became House speaker. The $6 million was part of about $35 million Sansom secured for the school in the two years he controlled the House budget.

"I don't know how to tell you in any other way other than it stinks to high heaven," State Attorney Willie Meggs said to Sansom, as he sat in the witness stand two months ago. "It just has a rotten smell to it."

• • •

A review of the case file shows how the grand jury became convinced that the airport building was going to be used by Odom, despite contrary statements from Sansom, Richburg and Odom.

Richburg and Odom have also been indicted. A trial could be months in the making. The college and Sansom insist the project had only two uses: to serve as a training facility for emergency workers and to be used as a staging area for first responders in a storm.

At the core of the case will be the single budget document. Prosecutors say it is crucial because Sansom asserted in his testimony that his only involvement was to get the money for his local college and that he had nothing to do with the placement of the building at Destin Airport, where Odom had long been planning to open Destin Jet.

Appearing before the grand jury, Sansom acknowledged there was early talk of putting the building at the airport but said it was the college's decision.

"This is an internal document," Sansom said, explaining that the airport reference was dropped from the final budget entry because it was the college's job to find a spot.

To grand jurors, however, there were too many connections to Odom, who had his own plans for a state-funded hangar on the same airport land that he eventually leased to the college.

The college then used Odom's already approved development order with the city of Destin as it proceeded with the building.

"I look at those plans and yeah, I see a hangar and I see hangar doors," a grand juror told Sansom.

Sansom testified that he would have never gotten state money for something Odom would use. Sansom said he felt comfortable going through the college to construct a building that could also be used as a staging area for Destin emergency response workers.

"So why use hangar plans to build it?" a grand juror asked.

"Well, I can't answer for the plans," Sansom replied. "As a legislator, once you get money to a college and purpose of the building, that's their decision how the plans work and what is designed."

He went on to say that after he got the money he met with Richburg and Odom and said "it was absolutely not to be used by a private individual."

• • •

The crux of Richburg's defense is a lease between Odom and the college for the airport land that says that nothing shall be construed as a partnership between Destin Jet and the college.

Richburg invoked that during his own grand jury testimony on April 16 at the courthouse in Tallahassee. But jurors concluded that did not preclude the college from giving space to the developer.

"We're looking for something specifically saying that they couldn't use this for a private purpose … so we can be assured that it will not be used as a hangar," a juror said.

"Ladies and gentlemen, I'm here to tell you that if airplanes were leased in that facility, this board (of college trustees) would run this president out of the state, because there is no plan for this college to use it as a hangar," Richburg testified.

"I'm sure they would now," a juror replied.

In fact, the trustees did fire Richburg after his indictment. The school also abandoned the project, which was still in design stages, and the money will be used for projects at other colleges next year. Richburg is fighting the dismissal, and the trustees may enter mediation.

The grand jury and State Attorney Meggs were perplexed by the two-story building and its tall hangar doors. If not to accommodate aircraft — as a college vice president testified they were for — then what? "I need a hangar door to get in every fire engine the city of Destin owns," Richburg testified. He suggested that the extra thick floors the design called for were not for aircraft but for the heavy trucks.

Northwest Florida State College has offered a similar explanation before.

But before the grand jury, Richburg gave another justification for the tall, open building design. "We are going to build within that … one of the most elaborate shoot-don't-shoot apartment kind of a facility you can imagine for the training for law enforcement people going in there."

When Sansom was on the witness stand, Meggs asked him about fitting fake apartments into a building that's supposed to house emergency vehicles in times of disaster. "See, Rep. Sansom, that's what has us all kind of balled up in a wad here. It can't be a staging area and build a mock apartment in there."

Sansom's reply: "Well, I think it can."

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

Key document in Sansom case refers to airport early on 06/21/09 [Last modified: Tuesday, June 23, 2009 1:25pm]

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