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Charlie Crist's testimony pans Ray Sansom's college deal

TALLAHASSEE

On the day former Gov. Charlie Crist took the stand as a star witness, prosecutors on Wednesday advanced the heart of their grand theft case against former House Speaker Ray Sansom, but the defense continued to land blows of its own.

In more than 13 minutes of testimony, Crist told the jury that he would have vetoed a $6 million airport building had he known it could have been leased in part to developer Jay Odom's private jet business for aircraft maintenance and storage.

"Once you became aware of that information, not previously provided to you at the time of your veto decision," Leon County State Attorney Willie Meggs asked, "what action did you take?"

"I requested that the money be returned," Crist said.

Meggs then showed Crist a letter he wrote to Northwest Florida State College — which got the $6 million appropriation — asking for the money back. The trustees returned the funds.

Sansom and Odom are accused of conspiring to get the $6 million project added into the state budget and concealing the airport building as an educational facility. Former college president Bob Richburg was also charged but has agreed to testify against the two men and will appear later this week.

The potential impact of Crist's testimony was underscored by an unsuccessful attempt by defense lawyers to block him from even appearing before the jury, contending his views were not relevant and held undue weight.

But it was blunted several times later in the day when current and former state officials emphasized that last-minute budget projects were not unheard of and that lack of clarity about the project reflected in the budget — it made no reference to Destin Airport or private use — was also common.

"We put in a very small representation of the major things that a particular project is supposed to do," said Ron Fahs, a former ranking official with the Department of Education.

To counter, Meggs handed Fahs an e-mail and had him read it to himself. Fahs then acknowledged that it appeared Sansom had been discussing the project before he got the money. Sansom has said he learned about extra funding coming available only in the last moments of the 2007 legislative session.

"Jay and I agreed that the project is to be held close until after your actions and until after we receive guidance from you," Richburg wrote to Sansom's official House e-mail account on April 3, 2007.

The morning also featured testimony from Sansom's counterpart in the state budget process, former state Sen. Lisa Carlton, R-Osprey, but defense lawyers successfully limited what she could say. Before jurors were brought in, she said that a different use of the airport building would have raised "red flags."

The defense was pleased when she said that additional education dollars came late in the budget process (which is when Sansom said he got the idea for an emergency operations center at the airport).

But Meggs then brought on a Department of Education official who testified that the Sansom project did not follow normal procedure in which colleges must wait several years for funding.

"Did the Department of Education have any knowledge of it until it appeared in the budget?" Meggs asked.

"No," replied the official, Lisa Cook.

Meggs presented paperwork showing how in the 2008 budget, Northwest Florida State College was supposed to get $1 million for a different project. It got $25 million, thanks to Sansom.

"Do you know how that got there?" Meggs asked. She replied, "Not exactly."

Defense attorneys again focused on the checks and balances in the funding system, and Cook said an audit would have been conducted on the college funding.

What carried the day, though, was the spectacle of the former governor raising his right hand and swearing to tell the truth.

Odom attorney Jimmy Judkins got Crist to talk about how the state had endured "a lot of hurricanes" in years leading up to the appropriation.

He asked Crist where the education funds used for the building come from. "The people," Crist said, drawing laughter in the court.

Crist said he learned about questions about the building being eyed by Odom from the media but also talked with his budget chief. Further, Crist agreed that the Department of Education would turn funds over to only the college itself, not Sansom or Odom.

That's a central tenet of the defense, that the men could not have committed grand theft and that the system has numerous checks and balances, including audits.

"Don't you have confidence in the Florida college system and the integrity of its employees and leaders to do what they're supposed to do with the public funds they receive?" Judkins asked.

"I have great faith," Crist said.

After leaving the courtroom, Crist maintained that he would have vetoed the airport project, even if it was more accurately described to show a potential use by Odom.

"If they are going to describe to the governor's office and the budget office that it's going to be used for a certain purpose and in fact it's going to be used for something else, that's the first clue that maybe it's inappropriate," he said, adding, "I felt it was wholly inappropriate, that's why I asked for the money back from the college and that's why they gave it back."

Crist said he did not think his testimony held unfair weight with the jury. "I was here just to tell the truth and to recall the facts as I know them. Whatever weight given to it is given to it by the jury. I'm just a citizen."

Crist, like many politicians in Tallahassee, was reticent to comment when the scandal first broke.

After indictments were handed down, he said he was misled and then wrote a letter to the trustees at Northwest Florida State College demanding the return of the $6 million. Sansom had steered the money to the college, where he would later take a $110,000 part-time job.

Crist later used the issue in his bitter U.S. Senate race, highlighting opponent Marco Rubio's ties with Sansom. When he was House speaker, Rubio tapped Sansom as his top budget writer. It was from that position that Sansom steered about $35 million in extra or accelerated funds to the Panhandle college.

. fast facts

What's next

Today will pick up where Wednesday left off — a protracted legal skirmish over the admissibility of several e-mails sent between Ray Sansom, Jay Odom, Bob Richburg and a lobbyist. In the end, they will be allowed in part, either by having lobbyist Jeff Schembera read them or the documents themselves will be entered. The prosecution contends the e-mails show a conspiracy. Keep up with the latest news at blogs.tampabay.com/buzz.

Charlie Crist's testimony pans Ray Sansom's college deal 03/23/11 [Last modified: Thursday, March 24, 2011 12:53am]
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