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E-mails show planners of Sansom's airport project concealed details

The planners of an airport project that ended Ray Sansom's political career in scandal deliberately concealed the location of the building, according to newly surfaced documents.

E-mails suggest a coordinated effort to slide the $6 million project through the state budget process and avoid a veto by Gov. Charlie Crist. State prosecutor Willie Meggs is so convinced of a deception that he will call the governor as a witness if Sansom's case goes to trial later this year.

"If it helps get to justice, I'm happy to help," Crist said Wednesday. The governor has said he was unaware that a private developer and friend of Sansom's wanted to use the building.

Language justifying the building as an emergency operations training center for Northwest Florida State College was hastily crafted in May 2007, right after the Legislature passed the budget, but it made no mention the building would be at Destin Airport.

The location is central to the controversy because the airport is where Sansom's friend Jay Odom was developing a corporate jet business. Records show that Odom, a major donor to the Republican Party, wanted to use part of the college-operated building to store aircraft.

He had persuaded the city of Destin to seek $6 million for a hangar that would double as an emergency operations center in a storm. The request was sent to Panhandle lawmakers but did not go anywhere in the lean budget year.

But Sansom, who told the Times/Herald in December 2008 that he was unaware of that request, added $6 million to a different part of the budget, steering the money to Northwest Florida State College, his future employer. The budget line made no mention of Destin Airport.

As it headed toward Crist's desk, former college president Bob Richburg was told that state officials would want a short description. Richburg e-mailed Sansom and asked, "Should we use Destin in the justification since it is not in the bill?"

Subsequent e-mails include the justification wording. "I heard from Ray and he is fine," Richburg wrote to a lobbyist. In an e-mail to Sansom, Richburg writes that "Jay is working the governor's office on the Destin project."

It is not clear whether Odom reached anyone in the governor's office.

Sansom's lawyer, Steve Dobson, declined to comment on Wednesday. Dobson has argued that Sansom had long envisioned an emergency operations center in Destin and that his role consisted solely of getting the appropriation; all other planning was up to the college, he said.

Sansom, 47, has been charged with grand theft, conspiracy to commit grand theft and perjury. He faced disciplinary action in the House but resigned his seat on the night before a hearing was to begin in February. Richburg and Odom also have been charged with grand theft.

A motion to dismiss the case is to be heard in Tallahassee next Wednesday. Meggs' case, the result of a Times/Herald investigation, has largely been built by public records. Thousands of pages, including hundreds of e-mails, have surfaced in the past year.

The new documents were retrieved from Richburg's computer by the Florida Department of Law Enforcement. The Times/Herald received them through court discovery. Among the hundreds of messages sent and received by Richburg were a few that shine more light on the scramble to avoid Crist's veto pen.

The lobbyist, Jeff Schembera, had told Richburg the two paragraphs justifying an emergency operations and training center looked good and added, "If the political will is there, this provides programmatic cover." He advised Richburg against using Destin in the description.

"Need to copy Ray and get strategy coordinated prior to sending," Schembera wrote in the May 7, 2007, e-mail. "He should be able to intervene politically."

In an interview Wednesday, Schembera said his line about "programmatic cover" may have been "inarticulate" but said the reason for avoiding Destin was simple.

"If you put a specific location in the bill . . . then you are tied down to that location. . . . It was simply a methodology to protect the dollars," he said.

But the wording was not in the authorizing legislation, which simply read "Okaloosa JT Use Emergency Response Workforce Center." Rather, it was language that the governor's office asked for to justify the project, since it suddenly appeared in the budget, sidestepping normal Department of Education planning.

Schembera said in the interview that he thought the project would be vetoed because it was not in the DOE pipeline. "To me it was a forgone conclusion.

Someone in the governor's office eventually learned about the Destin Airport as it appeared on internal documents used to evaluate projects and determine vetoes. But Crist has said he was unaware the building may have been used by Odom's business, Destin Jet.

For that reason, Meggs thinks Crist would make a key witness in the trial. Along with news coverage and a grand jury investigation, Crist's public statements helped lead Northwest Florida State College trustees to scrap the project, which was still in the planning stages in 2009, and return the money to the state.

Asked if he was uneasy testifying in a case against a fellow Republican, the governor said, "Not at all. Not in the least. You just do what's right. Glad to help."

Meggs said he also plans to call Crist's budget director, Jerry McDaniel. He said he would not call Marco Rubio, who was speaker of the House while Sansom got the money. Meggs said he has concluded that Rubio "didn't have anything to do with this."

Times/Herald staff writer Steve Bousquet contributed to this report. Alex Leary can be reached at leary@sptimes.com.

Shows lobbyist saying they should avoid using "Destin" and that Sansom will "intervene politically." Also that "Jay (Odom) would help too."

Shows Sansom "is fine" with language that does not include location. Also shows "if the political will is there this provides programmatic cover."

Richburg says that Sansom feels Odom can "help with the governor."

E-mails show planners of Sansom's airport project concealed details 04/14/10 [Last modified: Thursday, April 15, 2010 10:53am]
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