In a surprise escalation of the case against ousted House Speaker Ray Sansom, a state prosecutor Wednesday charged him with grand theft and conspiracy to commit grand theft for directing $6 million in taxpayer money for an airport building that a private developer wanted to use.
Leon County State Attorney Willie Meggs filed identical charges against former Northwest Florida State College president Bob Richburg and developer and major GOP contributor Jay Odom.
"There is something inherently wrong with what happened here," Meggs said.
Sansom, Odom and Richburg have denied wrongdoing. Their attorneys did not comment Wednesday.
A grand jury indicted all three on official misconduct charges in April, but a circuit judge dismissed part of the charge in October, and an appellate court ruled Dec. 31 that Meggs could not object because the other part of the case was active.
Acknowledging a damaged case, the veteran prosecutor Wednesday added what is called superseding information to the existing charges, which also include perjury against Sansom and Richburg.
The men are accused of conspiring with Sansom, onetime chief budget writer in the House, to divert $6 million in education funds for an airport hangar Odom wanted to use for his corporate jet business.
Officially, the building was to be maintained by Northwest Florida State College as an emergency operations and training facility at Destin Airport. Sansom, R-Destin, insists that was its only purpose.
"They took $6 million of taxpayer money by misrepresenting that it was going to be for an educational facility when, in fact, it was going to be an aircraft hangar," Meggs said. "We have state employees who haven't had a raise in three years, who have had their pay cut in the middle of all this, and we can build an aircraft hangar for a political supporter?"
Odom over the years had given about $1 million in political contributions, including $100,000 in September 2008 to a committee Sansom controlled.
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Several experts not connected with the case said the new charges are not out of bounds — at least on a surface level — because the theft statute is fairly broad.
But why didn't Meggs seek it in the first place?
He said he decided at the time that official misconduct, a third-degree felony, was fitting and carried an appropriate penalty: up to five years in prison. The new first-degree felony charge carries a maximum of 30 years.
"You can kill a fly with a fly swat, or you can kill one with a sledgehammer," Meggs said.
He said recent court decisions left the official misconduct charge hanging by a thread. Circuit Judge Terry Lewis, in his Oct. 5 decision, said the charge was at least partly unconstitutional as it applied to the case because "it would be overbroad and susceptible to arbitrary application."
More directly, Lewis threw out part of the evidence Meggs said illustrated how Sansom concealed the true nature of the project: the 2007 appropriations act. The budget line item had no reference to Destin Airport (or Odom's desire to use the building).
Lewis said, "Based upon their findings, one can understand the frustration and indignation apparent in the presentment of the grand jury. It is also natural to want to punish those involved."
But Lewis added that perhaps the Legislature was best equipped to determine any penalty. The grand jury itself effectively indicted the secretive budget process that rewards a handful of powerful lawmakers such as Sansom.
Meggs acknowledged Lewis had "gutted" his case but said he did not want to surrender it in the face of legal snags. "I cannot in my mind as a prosecutor put a pretty face on this. It's just not right."
Former statewide prosecutor Peter Antonacci, who briefly represented Sansom, says sometimes prosecutors file amended charges when they have difficulty proving the elements of an initial charge, and other times find new evidence or a witness with testimony that supports a different charge.
As for the grand theft, Antonacci said, "I wondered why he didn't use that charge in the first place.''
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The scandal broke when Sansom took an unadvertised, six-figure job at Northwest Florida State College on the same day in November 2008 that he was sworn in as speaker of the House.
The Times/Herald reported that in the two previous years, Sansom helped the small school get $35 million in extra or accelerated funding, including the $6 million in 2007. He also worked behind the scenes with the college president on legislation creating a state college system and helped write his own job description at the school.
Sansom, who was forced to give up the college job and was ousted as speaker, maintained the airport building was solely for an emergency management and training center to be operated by the college, and he denied any knowledge of Odom's plan to use part of the building.
He also denied knowing that Odom, around the same time, had persuaded the city of Destin to ask for $6 million in state funding for a building that would house his corporate jet business but be turned over to emergency management officials in a storm.
The college building — abandoned after the indictments — was to be erected on the same land at the Destin Airport that Odom planned for his taxpayer-funded hangar.
During the investigation, additional information came out, including an e-mail that then-college president Richburg sent to Sansom before the money was appropriated. The message — with a subject line "Meeting with Jay" — outlined a plan for a building and indicated Odom would use part of the space.
"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.
Sansom's attorney said there is no evidence Sansom read the message.
In court, defense attorneys also argued that any plan for Odom to use hangar space would have to be approved by the college trustees. The trustees, who fired Richburg in April, said they knew nothing of Odom's interest in the building.
Sansom, 47, also is being investigated by the Florida Commission on Ethics, and later this month the House is scheduled to begin a trial of sorts on charges he violated internal rules, which could result in him being unseated in the House. Because of the criminal case, Sansom does not plan to testify.
Times senior correspondent Lucy Morgan and staff writer Colleen Jenkins contributed to this report. Alex Leary can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.