TALLAHASSEE — Former House Speaker Ray Sansom and two co-defendants returned to state court Wednesday hoping to persuade a judge to drop felony charges of grand theft and conspiracy to commit grand theft, and avoid the spectacle of a trial.
Sansom, Destin developer Jay Odom and former Northwest Florida State College president Bob Richburg face criminal charges of misusing $6 million in taxpayer money for a proposed building on the school's campus in Destin. All three have denied wrongdoing.
In court, attorneys for the men emphasized that the project was a legitimate and routine expenditure for college classrooms as well as a staging area for emergency operations during hurricanes, not an airplane hangar for one of Odom's businesses, as the state claims. The state says Odom needed hangar space to store airplanes for his company, Destin Jet.
Circuit Judge Terry Lewis listened impassively throughout the laborious 21/2-hour hearing, during which defense lawyers read lengthy passages of statements from Destin officials defending the building as necessary to protect the isolated beachfront city.
Lewis did not indicate when he will rule on the motions.
Sansom's lawyer, Steve Dobson, said it is undisputed that the building would serve "instructional purposes and to service first responders in the city of Destin in the event of a hurricane," with room for fire trucks, Gulf Power equipment and up to 40 patrol cars from the Okaloosa County sheriff's office. Dobson ridiculed the prosecution for characterizing the building as "this stinking hangar for Jay Odom."
"I'm representing a man who I believe with all of my heart did something that was completely legal and completely good for his community," Dobson told the judge. "Mr. Sansom was trying to represent his community."
State Attorney Willie Meggs strongly defended the state's case. He cited the 2007 "smoking gun" e-mail from Richburg to Sansom and copied to Odom that said; "A lease will need to be developed for Jay to use some of the facility."
"From the start, these three people were in a conspiracy to build a building for the use of Jay Odom to do his maintenance," Meggs told the judge. "At some point in time, these motions to dismiss must stop. … We're just arguing and arguing."
"What we're talking about here is theft," Meggs told the judge, as he pleaded to let a jury determine their guilt or innocence.
Last month, Meggs dropped a perjury count against Sansom, and defense lawyers have sought sanctions against the longtime prosecutor, saying he has abused his position by leaking confidential documents to the news media.
Sansom, wearing a charcoal gray suit, chewing a stick of gum and sporting a suntan, sat in his familiar front-row bench seat in Courtroom 3A in the Leon County Courthouse, just across the street from the state Capitol where Sansom once held sway over billions in state spending. He is the only House speaker in Florida history to be ousted.
As the hearing ended he said, "Maybe soon I can talk. Not yet."
Steve Bousquet can be reached at email@example.com or (850) 224-7263.