A judge has allowed grand theft charges against former House Speaker Ray Sansom to stand, moving the case of a $6 million airport building closer to trial.
While the appropriation had to go through official channels, "that doesn't mean that the plan of the defendants was not possible," Circuit Judge Terry Lewis wrote. "People can be fooled."
"The fact that there were obstacles to overcome in order to accomplish the theft, doesn't make its attempt less a crime."
Leon County State Attorney Willie Meggs has charged that Sansom, R-Destin, and two co-defendants conspired to build an airplane hangar for a private developer under the guise of an educational facility for a Panhandle college.
Sansom, developer Jay Odom and former Northwest Florida State College president Bob Richburg have denied wrongdoing and have filed multiple motions to dismiss.
Meggs had previously seen his case gutted by the same judge and was forced to change an official misconduct charge to grand theft. This time, Lewis ruled it has constitutional standing.
"Certainly I'm pleased," Meggs said in an interview. "The state is just about broke and this was $6 million of taxpayer money that was going to be spent on an airplane hangar. The public ought to be angry."
Sansom's lawyer, Steve Dobson, did not return a call for comment.
Dobson has argued that grand theft is too broad as applied to the case, which dates to the 2007 legislative session and was the subject of a Times/Herald investigation that began after Sansom took a job with the college.
In the two years he controlled the House budget, Sansom steered about $35 million in extra or accelerated money to Northwest Florida State College. On the same day in November 2008 he was sworn in as House speaker, Sansom took a $110,000 job at the school. He later quit under intense public pressure and more recently resigned from the Legislature rather than face a disciplinary hearing.
Lewis suggested that Meggs could have challenges at trial, in part because most legislation will have the effect of benefiting private individuals and that lawmakers, like Sansom, feel an obligation to "bring home the bacon" in the form of local projects.
"Our public officials do not have carte blanche, however, to use our money to benefit themselves or their friends, with no regard to the required public purpose of that money," Lewis wrote. "The question, then, is how can the statute be applied in these types of situations so that it does not encourage unbridled, unchecked discretion and arbitrary enforcement on the part of prosecutors."
He went on to say that an appropriation that was the result of "impure or even corrupt motives on part of a legislator," cannot be theft in itself. But those funds can be the object of theft "by diverting them from the intended and stated public purpose, to the benefit of someone not entitled to them."