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In Sansom case, prosecutor 'just trying to do what I think is right'

Some 25 years ago in a Baptist church in Tallahassee, Willie Meggs was listening to a preacher philosophize over his fiery condemnations.

"Now I'm just shootin' down in a hole," the preacher said. "If you're down in there, I'm sorry.' " He knew he was stepping on some toes but carried on out of a sense of purpose in the struggle between right and wrong.

"That's the way I am," Meggs said Thursday from the Leon County State Attorney's Office. "If you're motivated to do what you think is the right thing and you're fair, then it's not a hard job."

But Meggs has shaken the Legislature with his prosecution of former House Speaker Ray Sansom. In a broader sense, he indicted a secretive state budget process.

On Wednesday, Meggs raised the stakes by charging Sansom, R-Destin, with grand theft for directing $6 million in taxpayer money for an airport building a private developer wanted to use.

The Sansom case is no sure thing and Meggs has already faced setbacks with the original felony charge, official misconduct. By redoubling his effort, was Meggs desperate or vindictive, and would the grand theft charge meet the same problems?

To answer that, Meggs recalled that scene in the Baptist Church, a philosophy he said he has tried to emulate.

Wednesday "was not something I relished," he said. "I'm not on a crusade to do anything. I'm just trying to do what I think is right. I look out the window here and feel like it's my town and my responsibility to keep it a good place to live."

Meggs, 66, has stepped into statewide controversy before. Nearly 20 years ago, he prosecuted two dozen lawmakers, Democrats and Republicans, accused of accepting trips from lobbyists and not reporting them. Critics wailed that Meggs was grandstanding. But he prevailed and a law was changed.

He has spent his life in Tallahassee — and on the side of the law. When he was born, he was taken from the hospital to the Leon County Jail, where his father was head jailer and his parents lived. Meggs was a police patrolman then a sheriff's deputy, starting a side business painting lines in parking lots to put himself through Florida State University as an undergrad and law student.

Some of the grief he's hearing in the Sansom case is similar to what arises when a Seminole athlete gets into trouble. Meggs is either blamed for being too tough or not tough enough.

"You've got to have a thick skin. But I can't imagine any other career path," said Meggs, who was first elected state attorney in 1985. He is a Democrat, as are almost all elected politicians in Leon County, but conservative. He does not recall ever voting for a Democratic presidential candidate.

• • •

Meggs now acknowledges that the official misconduct charge against Sansom and his co-defendants, including developer Jay Odom, faced difficulty. A circuit judge dismissed part of it on constitutional grounds.

Wednesday's announcement of grand theft and conspiracy to commit grand theft charges surprised many, and Meggs could encounter similar difficulties.

But prosecutors routinely change course. The public never hears about it because the cases are usually not high profile.

"When you're dealing with public officials and you have a sense there is something not right with their conduct it requires some creative charging," said Bobbi Flowers, a former prosecutor who is now a professor at Stetson University College of Law in Gulfport.

"This is testing the outer limits of the statutory limits, but it's certainly not laughable," said Robert Batey, another Stetson professor and an expert in criminal law.

Sansom's defense attorney has so far kept quiet about the new charge, but Meggs' move is sure to have inflamed emotions. The two sides have dueled through a series of motions and tension has sometimes come out in court hearings. Meggs lacks a certain polish and sometimes twists his words. He is prone to country witticism, drawing snickers from the opposition.

But the defense has also accused him of playing to the media and Meggs' office mistakenly released grand jury testimony to several news organizations, including the St. Petersburg Times.

Meggs said media interaction is just part of the job and has denied having political motives.

"He's a straight shooter," said Jerry Blair, a longtime friend and former state attorney in nearby Live Oak. "He is totally honest, and he has a highly defined sense of what's right and wrong. He's not someone I'd want coming after me. He's very tenacious."

Some, however, think Meggs can be misguided. Robert Augustus Harper, a prominent defense attorney in Tallahassee, put it this way: "Mr. Meggs is well-respected because he's a man of strong character but that doesn't necessarily mean he makes the best charging decisions every time he makes a case. Too often I believe he relies on the good book instead of the statute book."

Harper was a defense lawyer in Meggs' case against the state lawmakers in the early 1990s. Meggs charged two dozen for accepting trips from lobbyists who took them hunting, fishing and pleasure tripping around the world. They eventually entered pleas and paid fines. Amid the controversy, the Legislature changed a disclosure law, making it illegal for public officials to accept trips or gifts valued at over $100.

At the same time, Meggs saw his budget cut by $100,000 and was the only prosecutor to receive less general revenue money than the public defender in his circuit. The move suggested retribution, though today Meggs does not think anything sinister was at work.

• • •

Talking about state budgets brings it all back to Sansom and the $6 million he steered toward the airport project. Sansom has said it was solely for an emergency management training and operation center.

Meggs said he is convinced there was wrongdoing, that Sansom was helping a friend get a airplane hangar.

"We don't have classroom space that is safe for our kids and we have a Legislature that can build a hangar? I don't understand that. As a citizen, I don't like it. And as a prosecutor, I think it's criminal."

Times senior correspondent Lucy Morgan contributed to this report. Alex Leary can be reached at [email protected]

In Sansom case, prosecutor 'just trying to do what I think is right' 01/07/10 [Last modified: Friday, January 8, 2010 1:51am]
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