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New information undercuts Sansom's defense

Former Speaker Ray Sansom, R-Destin, faces criminal charges and a House inquiry.

Former Speaker Ray Sansom, R-Destin, faces criminal charges and a House inquiry.

As the Florida House prepares for an unrivaled investigative hearing into its former leader, new information undercuts key parts of Rep. Ray Sansom's defense.

A budget document clearly links Sansom to a Panhandle college's $6 million airport project and a statement from an official raises new questions about Sansom's ties to a private developer and major political donor.

Sansom, R-Destin, has said that the airport appropriation — which is the heart of criminal charges against him and a major part of the House inquiry — was available for all lawmakers and Gov. Charlie Crist to review before signing off on the budget.

The project was indeed listed in the 2007 spending plan. But the simple description made no mention of what a Times/Herald investigation would uncover as evidence that a private developer, Jay Odom, planned to use part of the building for his corporate jet business.

A just-surfaced budget document Crist used in determining vetoes that year makes no mention of Odom. It identifies the project only as an emergency response and training center for Northwest Florida State College, the small school where Sansom would later take a $110,000 job on the same day he was sworn in as House speaker.

"According to House and Senate staff and the Department of Education, this is Rep. Sansom's project," reads the description prepared for Crist, who did not veto the money.

The information available to Crist identified Destin Airport as the location, while the budget language was not as specific.

Sansom told the Times/Herald last December that he did not know Odom was seeking $6 million from the state, through a request filed by the city of Destin, for a hurricane-proof building that would serve as a hangar for his jet business but also as an emergency operation center in a storm.

That community budget issue request, or CBIR, never got funded but Sansom did get $6 million for the college, which planned the building on the same land Odom was going to use.

If Sansom was unaware of his friend Odom's involvement, Odom seemed to have detailed knowledge about the shift. In a recorded interview conducted as part of the criminal case, Destin City Manager Greg Kisela said he ran into Odom during the 2007 legislative session and asked him about the CBIR.

"I asked him the status because sometimes it's hard to track where those grants are," Kisela said. "He told me that grant was not going to be forthcoming and that it had been basically repackaged as an educational facility-emergency operations center."

The testimony could play a role in the House hearing, set to begin in late January, which could lead to discipline, including a recommendation that Sansom be removed from office. Kisela is one of the potential witnesses for House prosecutor Melanie Hines.

In a recent interview, Kisela told the Times/Herald that his conversation with Odom lasted less than a minute. He said Odom told him, "The money was going to come through the educational component."

What did he mean? Did Odom and Sansom have conversations about the project?

A lawyer for Sansom could not be reached Monday, and Odom's attorney said he was aware of Kisela's statement but declined to comment.

What Odom and Sansom knew is critical to the case. Documents that surfaced amid the investigation show that ex-college president Bob Richburg sent Sansom an e-mail in April 2007 — before the legislative session was over — outlining the project.

"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 in the message with a subject line "Meeting with Jay."

Sansom's criminal defense attorney has said there is no evidence Sansom opened the message, though Sansom regularly used e-mail to communicate.

Alex Leary can be reached at leary@sptimes.com.

New information undercuts Sansom's defense 12/21/09 [Last modified: Tuesday, December 22, 2009 11:40am]

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