Only as a newspaper began asking questions did college officials begin devising an educational purpose for aircraft space secured through funding from Rep. Ray Sansom, according to investigative files released Tuesday.
The new approach surfaced as scrutiny intensified over Sansom's dealings with Northwest Florida State College, a businessman's plans to store aircraft and $6 million the Destin Republican secured for the project.
Before a St. Petersburg Times/Miami Herald Tallahassee bureau investigation began in November 2008, a college official said, he was told not to incorporate 15,000 square feet of hangar space into the emergency response training use of the building at Destin Airport.
"I was led to believe that the staging area was off-limits," Brian Shonk, director of public safety, told an investigator for the Leon County State Attorney's Office.
Shonk and others say they believed developer Jay Odom was going to use the space as part of his corporate jet business. E-mails and other records obtained by the Times/Herald and investigators back that up.
The Shonk interview, conducted July 30 at the college campus in Niceville, was one of several released Tuesday as prosecutors prepare for the criminal trial against Sansom, Odom and ex-college president Bob Richburg.
All three have been indicted on official misconduct charges over their role in securing the $6 million in the 2007 state budget. A trial is set to begin in late September.
The airport money was part of $35 million in extra or accelerated funds Sansom got for the small school in the two years before becoming speaker of the House.
Sansom took a part-time $110,000 job at the college on the same day last November that he was sworn into that powerful position.
"Real near" the time the Times/Herald began to question the airport building along with other connections, Shonk said Richburg came to him and asked how the hangar space could be used for emergency training.
It was then, Shonk said, that he suggested putting mock buildings inside to help train emergency responders.
Shonk said he was surprised when the college issued a statement asserting that there were no plans for aircraft storage.
Early on in the planning process, he said, an architect working for the college explained that large hangar doors were needed to fit a large plane.
"I don't know if he mentioned Mr. Jay Odom, Destin Jet or just a tenant or a company, but he said the largest plane that entity had was a Lear King Jet … and the door needed to be large enough to accommodate that plane," Shonk said.
At one point, Odom owned a King Air, but architect Jim Dowling could have also referred to a much larger Learjet.
Odom's corporate jet business, next door to the planned college building, presumably would have handled aircraft owned by other people.
Shonk said he understood all along that Odom planned to use the building and that one of Odom's employees attended a planning meeting in early 2008.
What's more, other e-mails show that Odom was involved in working on a lease that would accommodate his interests.
Dowling is the author of a Dec. 4, 2008, e-mail that said he had confirmed from the "user" of the staging area that multiple aircraft would be stored in the building.
That message was sent three days after Sansom first denied to the Times/Herald that Odom planned to use the building.
Sansom's denial first appeared in a story published Dec. 7. "It doesn't benefit him at all," Sansom said in an interview at the Capitol.
"He wasn't involved with me. I worked with the college."
A college spokeswoman, Sylvia Bryan, referred Tuesday to a provision of a lease between the college and Odom (who had leased airport land from Okaloosa County) that said nothing "shall be construed as a partnership between Destin Jet and the college."
She said the space would have been used during emergencies to store aircraft.
She declined to address Shonk's statements.
Alex Leary can be reached at email@example.com.