A Leon County grand jury sent a powerful message Friday with its indictment of former House Speaker Ray Sansom and stinging critique of the way powerful legislators commonly operate: There are limits to using public money to reward friends and political contributors, and the way lawmakers write the state budget and collect campaign cash invites corruption.
Sansom and Northwest Florida State College president Bob Richburg were charged with falsely creating state budget documents to steer $6 million in public college construction money to a Destin Airport building originally sought by Jay Odom, a developer and Sansom contributor. Richburg also was charged with perjury and accused of lying in his grand jury testimony. Richburg took a leave of absence from the college Friday afternoon. Sansom, who gave up a new $110,000-a-year job at the college and then the speakership as the scandal erupted, should resign from the House so his Panhandle district can be represented by someone who can devote his full attention to the job.
The use of community college construction money to pay for the airport building, first reported by the St. Petersburg Times' Alex Leary in December, did not look right from the moment it became public. Odom had been trying unsuccessfully to get public money for such a building for his jet business. As the House's chief budget negotiator, Sansom quietly inserted the $6 million for the college building into the 2007-08 state budget. The college building would be built miles from campus on airport land leased by Odom, using the development order prepared by Odom's company and relying on essentially the same building design as Odom proposed. One plan even called for Odom's company to sublease part of the college building for its planes. The claims by Sansom and Richburg that the projects were not connected are at odds with the facts, and the grand jury did not buy them.
As the Times reported, Sansom accepted an unadvertised high-paying job at the college on the day he became speaker last November. And Odom contributed a total of more than $1 million to the state Republican Party, a campaign slush fund partially controlled by Sansom, and Sansom's own campaign account. While the grand jury did not find a direct connection between Odom's cash and the college building, it reasonably concluded "there is a strong inference of impropriety.''
Sansom and Richburg, of course, will have an opportunity to defend themselves in court. But Leon State Attorney Willie Meggs demonstrated his political courage by bringing this abuse of power to the grand jury. And regardless of how these charges are resolved, the grand jury performed a public service. Ordinary citizens held these powerful men accountable for their abuse of power and misuse of public dollars. And ordinary citizens stood up to the Legislature and issued a clear warning about the dangers of a state budget process that is not transparent and a campaign fundraising system that allows too much money to flow in from powerful interests expecting something in return.