A former Florida college president, after years of denials, finally has acknowledged the obvious: He conspired with a high-ranking legislator to steal $6 million in state tax dollars to build an airplane hangar sought by a prominent Republican donor. As is often the case, former Northwest Florida State College president Bob Richburg's revelations come in exchange for avoiding prosecution, and the arrangement is not entirely satisfactory. But at least taxpayers now have some additional hope that former House Speaker Ray Sansom and prominent campaign donor Jay Odom will be held to account for stealing from the public purse.
Richburg's acknowledgements, revealed Friday, confirm what public records have long revealed about the 2007 deal, and Leon County State Attorney Willie Meggs deserves credit for his dogged efforts to criminally prosecute Sansom, Odom and Richburg.
As the Times' Alex Leary reported, Sansom was the newly minted House speaker in late 2008 when Richburg created for him an unadvertised, $110,000 part-time job at the college. Leary eventually pieced together that Sansom had steered $35 million to the college in the previous two years as the House budget chief, including $6 million for a Destin airport building for the college that would have accommodated Odom's planes. All three men repeatedly denied Odom planned to lease the building from the college for his charter jet business — contrary to many others' accounts.
Now Richburg has admitted the entire ruse to avoid prosecution. He will be required to testify at the trial against Sansom and Odom scheduled to begin Monday, perform 250 hours of community service and repay a third of the $310,000 the college spent on the Odom project before it was scuttled. Unsatisfactorily, the deal allows Richburg to keep his generous state pension.
Richburg is no hero in this scandal, but his deal may be the price that has to be paid to send a message to Tallahassee that the pay-to-play culture has criminal consequences. By currying favor with Sansom and Odom, Richburg knew his college would be more likely to get what it wanted in Tallahassee. Meggs found no evidence that Richburg benefited personally from the deal — while Sansom received the lucrative college job and Odom stood to gain the airport hangar disguised as a college building.
It was also revealed Friday that after Sansom was forced to give up his college job, Odom helped him obtain a $7,000-a-month job with a Fort Walton Beach insurance agency whose owner owed Odom money. Sansom relinquished the speakership and, finally, on the eve of a House ethics hearing in February 2010, resigned his House seat.
Some in Tallahassee, inured to the capital's corrupt culture, have defended Sansom and argue that he has paid a price for doing nothing more than what many other lawmakers do to help their districts and benefactors. But Richburg's testimony now lays bare a conspiracy to defraud taxpayers. Now a jury will decide the fates of Sansom and Odom, and Richburg's testimony should provide the jurors with some clarity.