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More evidence in Sansom case shows plans for hangar

As the political saga involving ousted House Speaker Ray Sansom and a $6 million taxpayer-funded airport building goes on, a Panhandle college has steadfastly maintained that a private developer would not use the facility.

Its proof: a user agreement that says nothing shall be "interpreted as creating a partnership or joint venture" between Northwest Florida State College and the developer.

But state investigators on Tuesday released sworn testimony from a college architect confirming plans laid out in a December e-mail to accommodate "multiple aircraft" for the developer's corporate jet business, next door at Destin Airport.

The key: Those plans were agreed to in December 2008 — weeks after the user agreement was signed.

And they were made after Sansom first denied to the Times/Herald any connection between the money he got and Jay Odom, the developer and Sansom's friend and political contributor.

"Is that an airplane hangar?" Leon County State Attorney's Office investigator Jim Anderson asked architect Jim Dowling on Aug. 7.

"That area as designed is the staging area for the building but does have the ability and capability to accept aircraft," Dowling replied, referring to 15,000 square feet of tall, open space.

The recorded interview is one in a series that have been released as Sansom's criminal trial approaches. He faces felony official misconduct charges, accused of disguising the project during the state budget process in 2007.

The 47-year-old Destin Republican said he got the money for an emergency operations training and response center. In court papers last week that seek to have the case dropped, Sansom's lawyer argued that Sansom had no control over the use of the building after getting the money for the college.

Sansom steered $35 million in extra or accelerated money to the college over a two-year period and then, on the same day in November that he was sworn in as speaker, he took a $110,000-a-year job at the school. He quit amid statewide controversy and then was ousted as speaker. The college also abandoned plans for the airport building, though it remains the centerpiece of the criminal charges against Sansom.

In the interview Aug. 7, Dowling said the building at Destin Airport also had room for maintenance of aircraft — space Odom needed for his business.

He said he was referring to Destin Jet in his Dec. 4 e-mail to the college detailing additional costs for aircraft storage.

In the e-mail to college officials, Dowling said he had confirmed from the "user" of the "staging area" that "multiple aircraft" would be stored there.

"We were told to include those" design changes, Dowling said.

Other revelations: Dowling said that at some point, college officials contacted him to remove references to an airplane "hangar" on plans and replace it with "staging area."

He said it was a challenge to create education space within an airport setting, including how to soundproof classrooms. Parking also was an issue.

A college spokeswoman, Sylvia Bryan, declined to comment on Dowling's testimony because of the court proceedings. She again cited the user agreement (Odom was subleasing the college land he leased from Okaloosa County) and added that emergency vehicles or aircraft could have been used. She cited "future flexibility" for "other incidental public purposes" subject to Florida law.

The state attorney investigator, Anderson, also interviewed former Senate President Ken Pruitt, R-Port St. Lucie, as part of the preparation for the trial, set to begin Sept. 29.

Well before Sansom got the money, he, Odom and college president Bob Richburg, who also have been indicted, traveled to Indian River Community College and toured a planned homeland security facility. Pruitt was there.

It was this meeting, according to an e-mail Richburg sent to Sansom before the money was obtained, that was the impetus for the project in Destin. But Pruitt said the Indian River building would not accommodate aircraft.

Pruitt told the investigator that he could not recall whether they ever talked about a facility in Destin. "I can't adamantly represent to you that they never discussed it with me."

But he said he had no idea what was planned.

Pruitt also said it was unusual for the project to appear only as one line in the budget, with no backup justification.

"It's not common," he said, "but it is possible."

Alex Leary can be reached at leary@sptimes.com.

More evidence in Sansom case shows plans for hangar 08/11/09 [Last modified: Wednesday, August 12, 2009 5:48pm]

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