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A Times Editorial

Developer on the hook with his pals

It seems only fair that a Leon County grand jury indicted developer Jay Odom Wednesday for his role in securing $6 million in public college construction money for a Destin Airport building designed to house his airplanes. The grand jury already has indicted former House Speaker Ray Sansom and former Northwest Florida State College president Bob Richburg for their role in the conspiracy. To leave Odom untouched when he was a driving force behind the scheme did not seem right, and now all of the players will have to defend themselves before a jury.

From the start, it was Odom who sought public money for an airport hangar for his company's use. Not Sansom. Not Richburg. In 2004 and 2006, the grand jury recounted earlier, it was Odom who sought help from Destin officials for the project. He once pitched an airport building that could house his business and an emergency operations center. The project was not in the community college's plans and miles from its campus.

Yet in 2007, Sansom inserted into the state budget $6 million in college construction money for the airport building. Office space became classrooms, and the first-floor hangar was called a staging area. The college building would be built on airport land leased by Odom, using the development order prepared by Odom's company and essentially the same designs. On its face, this is not a proper use of public school construction money and the Legislature was intentionally misled.

Leon State Attorney Willie Meggs said Wednesday the grand jury was presented with additional documents before charging Odom, including a proposed lease between Odom and the college and e-mails from Richburg about the building's use. Curiously, some of those documents did not surface until after Richburg was fired by the college and months after the St. Petersburg Times made public records requests for such material. The grand jury indicted Odom on a charge of official misconduct for his role in acquiring the state money, and it added a perjury charge to Sansom for insisting to the grand jury that the building was never intended to be for private use.

Official misconduct sounds like a peculiar charge for a private individual, but it is appropriate because Odom was a principal in the effort to improperly steer state money to the project. Prosecutors, of course, will have to sell that to a jury. But at least now the developer whose actions helped trigger the ouster of a college president and a state House speaker — and criminal indictments against both men — will have to answer for his actions.

In the meantime, the grand jury's outrage at this misuse of public money still does not register in places where it should. Richburg is fighting to get his job back. And in Tampa last week, Republican Rep. Kevin Ambler recklessly accused Meggs of playing politics in the Sansom case. A lawmaker who is a potential candidate for attorney general ought to have more respect for the legislative process and the criminal justice system.

Developer on the hook with his pals 05/27/09 [Last modified: Wednesday, May 27, 2009 7:20pm]
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