The case against former House Speaker Ray Sansom suffered a major blow Monday when a judge dismissed an official misconduct charge related to a $6 million project that a grand jury said was to be an airplane hangar for one of Sansom's political allies.
"Based upon their findings, one can understand the frustration and indignation apparent in the presentment of the grand jury," Leon County Circuit Judge Terry Lewis wrote. "It is also natural to want to punish those involved.
"But not every wrongful conduct is a crime. Sometimes the remedy for such conduct must be political rather than judicial. This is one of those situations."
Lewis also swept aside felony official misconduct charges against Sansom's co-defendants: developer and big-time GOP donor Jay Odom, and former Northwest Florida State College president Bob Richburg. A perjury charge against Richburg was dismissed, though part of one against Sansom was allowed to stand.
Lewis said the official misconduct charge was unconstitutional as it applied to the case because "it would be overbroad and susceptible to arbitrary application." The defense argued there is a separation of power between the branches of state government and said prosecution would have an "enormous chilling effect" and place "unmanageable expectations" on the Legislature.
State Attorney Willie Meggs said he would ask the Attorney General's Office to appeal. "If the statute is unconstitutional, it's unconstitutional," he said. "But I feel real strong about it."
The long-awaited order throws Meggs' case into considerable doubt and was a big victory for Rep. Sansom, R-Destin, and his co-defendants.
"He's delighted," said Sansom's attorney, Steve Dobson. "We had maintained all along that you could not falsify the (state budget) and the judge agreed."
"We're real happy," said Odom's attorney, James Judkins. "He's very pleased," said Richburg attorney Hank Coxe. "It's been horrendously stressful."
Lewis let stand part of a perjury charge against Sansom — whether he lied by saying the college requested millions in additional funding for a different project in 2008. But Meggs conceded that aspect was one of the weaker components of the case.
Even if Sansom, 47, prevails in state court, he could have other legal issues to confront. The FBI and IRS have been investigating in some capacity, though officials will not say to what extent.
Sansom's troubles began last November when, on the same day he was sworn in as House speaker, he took a $110,000 part-time job at the college in Niceville.
The St. Petersburg Times/Miami Herald Tallahassee Bureau reported how Sansom had helped the small school get $35 million in extra or accelerated funding, including $6 million for the Destin Airport building in 2007.
Sansom denied any connection between the job and his largesse, saying he was only looking out for his district. He reluctantly quit the position and was forced out as speaker. He still faces investigations by the House (an independent review found there was probable cause Sansom damaged public faith in the body) and the state Commission on Ethics.
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Meggs contends that Sansom, Richburg and Odom worked together to plan for the building at Destin Airport. An e-mail from April 2007 — shortly before Sansom got the money — showed that Richburg outlined a deal to Sansom where the college would get the funding but Odom would use part of the building.
"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 on April 3. Sansom's lawyers said there was no proof Sansom read the e-mail.
Odom had secured land at the airport for his corporate jet business, Destin Jet, and went to the city of Destin for $6 million in state funding for a building that emergency officials could use in a major storm.
That funding request did not get traction in the 2007 legislative session but Sansom, who was then budget chairman, got $6 million for the college by tapping education construction money. The college then worked out a lease with Odom to use land at Destin Airport that Odom was going to use for his business.
The college said it planned to build an emergency operations training and response center. E-mails and testimony showed Odom still pursued plans to store aircraft there, though the college pointed to the lease that said nothing shall be construed as creating a partnership. The college trustees gave up on the project amid the controversy; most of the money has been returned to the state.
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The official misconduct charge focused on two documents: The 2007 state budget, formally called the general appropriations act; and a document that was allegedly used to insert the $6 million into the budget.
"The fact that Mr. Sansom may have misled other members of the Legislature by hiding from them his 'true' intent, does not make the appropriations act itself false," Lewis wrote regarding the first charge that Sansom falsified the budget.
The second part of the official misconduct charge hinged on a simply-worded budget document that identified the project as a "Jt Use Emergency Response Workforce Center." Lewis, in his order Monday, said he did not have enough information to determine if it fit into the official misconduct charge.
Meggs unearthed an earlier version of the document that referred to Destin Airport. He said that by omitting the location in the final budget that all lawmakers voted on, Sansom was disguising the intent of the project.
But defense lawyers say Meggs cannot prove who created the document, something Meggs' investigator conceded in a deposition. "All the witnesses say, 'I don't know it came from,' " Judkins said.
The defense attorneys said they could file additional information with the judge to press that point.
"There's nothing on it that's false," Meggs acknowledged. "It just misrepresents what the purpose is. It's accurate; it just doesn't tell the true story."
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Legislative reaction was muted Monday.
"It's clearly a separation of powers issue," said Rep. Ellyn Bogdanoff, R-Fort Lauderdale. "The governor has the option to veto something we pass. We have a checks and balances system, and the ruling said, that system is there."
Lewis did leave lawmakers with a warning:
"A fair reading of the grand jury's presentment should give pause to members of the Legislature, and anyone else who cares about public trust and confidence in our government institutions. The grand jurors were extremely critical of the conduct of Mr. Sansom, concluding that he had 'violated the trust that the citizens of Florida should expect from its elected representatives.' But they were also critical of a process and a culture in the Legislature that not only tolerates such conduct, but seems to think little of it."
Times/Herald staff writer Shannon Colavecchio contributed to this report. Alex Leary can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.