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Trail of e-mails detail building plans in Sansom case

TALLAHASSEE — Three days after Rep. Ray Sansom first denied a taxpayer-funded college building would benefit a friend's corporate jet business, architects were modifying the plans to accommodate "multiple aircraft."

The move, complete with plans to add trench drains for airplane fluids, appears in a December 2008 e-mail to officials at Northwest Florida State College that became public only this week.

In an April 2008 e-mail, the college president affirms the developer's plan to use part of the building. "Whereas we are committed to the idea of leasing unused space back to you, we need to see how the square footage works out in the planning. I look forward to seeing you at your office at 10:00 tomorrow," Bob Richburg writes to Jay Odom.

Those e-mails and hundreds of others provided to investigators (the college says it did not previously know about the documents) cast more light on a scandal that resulted in new grand jury indictments Wednesday against Sansom and his developer friend Odom.

Sansom, Odom and Richburg have been charged with felony official misconduct for their role in securing $6 million in taxpayer money for the building at Destin Airport. The ousted speaker of the Florida House and Richburg also face perjury charges over allegedly lying about Odom's involvement.

All three say they will be vindicated at trial. But the documents could bolster State Attorney Willie Meggs' case.

The Dec. 4, 2008, e-mail is from Jim Dowling, an architect working for the small Panhandle college. Dowling indicated that he has "confirmed" from the "user" of the space that "multiple aircraft will be stored" there.

"Therefore," he added, "we are required to add floor trench drains, slope the floor and add a gas intercept in the line by code."

Three days earlier, Sansom gave an interview to a Times/Herald reporter in his Capitol office and said Odom had nothing to do with the project.

"It doesn't benefit him at all," he insisted. "He wasn't involved with me. I worked with the college."

A college spokeswoman, Sylvia Bryan, confirmed Thursday that those elements were incorporated into the plans. But she said the final arrangement made clear there were no provisions for anyone but the college to use the building.

A lease, however, includes a clause that allows Odom first priority to "re-purchase the leasehold interest in the facility" if the college decided to cease using it for training. And a manager for Odom's jet business previously told the Times/Herald that Odom planned to lease back some of the space. Odom said the man was "confused."

Bryan did not respond to a question about the identity of the "user" whom Dowling indicated would be storing aircraft in the college building. Dowling did not return several messages seeking comment.

The college trustees last month voted to abandon the project, which had only gone through planning stages, and also fired Richburg.

• • •

Still, the grand jury indictments mean the hundreds of documents and other evidence will play a critical role in the criminal trials that follow.

Unraveling it all could take months.

Sansom said that in 2007 lawmakers were eager to spend capital money to boost the economy so he proposed to Richburg, the college president, a dual-use building in which first-responders would be trained year-round but would vacate in times of emergency.

Sansom said he didn't know that Odom had proposed a $6 million facility that would house his corporate jet business and provide space to emergency workers in a hurricane. And Sansom said he wasn't involved when the college chose Odom's site at Destin Airport as the location to build its emergency training center.

One of the newly surfaced documents, however, shows that Richburg talked to Sansom at least a month before the 2007 state budget was approved and indicated that Odom planned on using part of the space.

What's more, Odom flew with Sansom and Richburg on a visit to Indian River Community College in 2005 that Richburg cited in an e-mail as the impetus for the college project. Indian River at the time was planning an emergency training complex.

Richburg and Sansom say their project at Destin Airport was to train emergency workers and provide a staging area in a storm. Sen. Ken Pruitt, the Port St. Lucie Republican who would become Senate president in 2007, was there for the tour but said he has no idea what visitors took away from it.

"I can't tell you when they left there what was the motivation for what they did," Pruitt said Thursday.

Additional e-mails indicate the college and engineers discussed the potential need for fire suppression and other safeguards.

An official with the National Fire Protection Association said Thursday that there would be no reason to cite the code included in the e-mail exchanges unless the building was to be used as a hangar.

"NFPA (code) 409 is not concerned with the protection of over the road vehicles," said Timothy Hawthorne, fire protection specialist for the association.

"Its scope is to protect a building used as an aircraft hangar."

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

Trail of e-mails detail building plans in Sansom case 05/28/09 [Last modified: Thursday, May 28, 2009 11:14pm]
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