The FBI has begun investigating a web of political and personal connections that have already resulted in state indictments of former House Speaker Ray Sansom and two associates.
The potential of a federal grand jury complicates and intensifies matters for Sansom, Okaloosa County developer Jay Odom and the former president of Northwest Florida State College, Bob Richburg.
The men face felony charges over allegedly securing $6 million in taxpayer money for a college building that Odom may have planned to use for his corporate jet business.
An FBI agent recently started collecting information in the case and other issues, though the scope and interest is unknown.
Odom has given about $1 million in donations to Florida Republicans — including about $122,000 to Sansom and a political committee he controlled — and has made his aircraft available to politicians. The FBI often gets investigative help from the IRS.
A grand jury would be coordinated through the U.S. Attorney's Office for the Northern District of Florida, which declined to comment Friday.
But investigators could concentrate more resources on other cases in the Panhandle after recently securing the conviction of Okaloosa County Sheriff Charlie Morris in a kickback scheme involving his employees.
One potential tool prosecutors could use is a doctrine known as "honest services" fraud, which is generally considered easier to prove than outright bribery.
The law presumes a public official owes the public a duty of honest services. When the official fails and does so using the mail, telephones or e-mail while concealing a financial interest, it becomes a crime.
In some states the law has been used to prosecute legislators who accepted jobs or gifts from lobbyists or institutions that receive public money.
Sansom's troubles began when he took a $110,000 part-time job at Northwest Florida State College on the day in November when he was sworn in as House speaker. He quit after two months as public and media criticism grew.
The Times/Herald then reported that over the previous two years, the Destin Republican got the small college an extra or accelerated $35 million in construction money, including $6 million in 2007 for the building at Destin Airport.
Sansom has said the appropriations were available for all lawmakers to see and approve before the budget went to Gov. Charlie Crist.
That airport project is the core of the official misconduct charges facing Sansom, Odom and Richburg.
A grand jury concluded that Odom planned to use the building, even as the college would use part of it for emergency operations training.
Sansom and Richburg have also been charged with perjury over allegedly telling the jury that Odom was not going to use the building.
E-mails, however, show that as recently as December 2008, architects for the college were counting on "multiple aircraft" being stored there.
Sansom's attorney, Stephen Dobson, said Thursday that he was not aware federal investigators were looking around. But he said after reviewing evidence in the state case, he is confident his client will be cleared.
"I'm convinced Ray Sansom is innocent," Dobson said. "Not just not guilty, but innocent."
Alex Leary can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.