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A Times Editorial

Sansom ruling not the last word

Monday's dismissal of the primary official misconduct charges against former House Speaker Ray Sansom and his two accomplices by a Tallahassee circuit judge should not be the final word on this scandal. The state should appeal Circuit Judge Terry Lewis' ruling, and legislators should rewrite the law if appellate courts agree with the judge's pinched reasoning. Federal authorities should continue their investigation of Sansom and his pals, and Sansom is still charged with lying to a state grand jury. If Sansom gets away with using public education dollars to build an airport hangar for his friend, then anything goes in the Florida Legislature.

The grand jury clearly recounted how Sansom, as the House's chief budget negotiator in 2007, quietly inserted $6 million in public education dollars into the state budget for a building for Northwest Florida State College. The building actually was to be an airport hangar at the Destin Airport to benefit Jay Odom, a developer and Sansom campaign contributor. It would have been built miles from campus on airport land leased by Odom, using the development order prepared by Odom's company and relying on the same essential building design Odom had previously proposed. There were even plans for Odom's company to sublease part of the college building for his planes. By any definition, that is an airport hangar for private use — not a college building. Its description in the state community college construction budget — "Okaloosa Jt Use Emergency Response Workforce Center" — is intentionally misleading.

The paper trail became even clearer after the indictments of Sansom, Odom and then-college president Bob Richburg on charges of official misconduct. They denied their intention was for Odom to use the college building as an airport hangar, but a proposed lease and various e-mails confirmed that was the plan until it was exposed in a St. Petersburg Times/Miami Herald report in December 2008. So the defense lawyers dropped that argument and attacked the law instead.

In granting their motions to dismiss the main official misconduct charges, the judge took a narrow view and concluded the law is unconstitutional as it applied to this case. Lewis wrote that legislation is not falsified merely because a single lawmaker misrepresents the act's purpose. In many cases, that would be a reasonable conclusion. After all, lawmakers often are less than truthful to the public and their colleagues about the potential impact of a particular piece of legislation.

But the Sansom scandal is different. It involves spending public education dollars to benefit a private business and lying about it. Under the judge's reasoning, legislators are free to falsely describe the use of tax money in the budget for one public purpose and then steer the money to their politically powerful friends. What lawmakers call another joint use emergency facility could be a private car dealership. What they label a generic public clinic could be a private doctor's office. The possibilities for the misuse of taxpayer money would be limited only by the imaginations of legislators and their pals, and what little public trust in government there is now would evaporate.

"It is also natural to want to punish those involved," the judge wrote. "But not every wrongful conduct is a crime. Sometimes the remedy for such conduct must be political rather than judicial. This is one of those situations.''

No, it isn't. Sansom, Richburg and Odom conspired to misuse public education construction money for private benefit, and that is a crime against all Floridians. If there is not a state law that fits this abuse of the public trust, there should be.

Sansom ruling not the last word 10/05/09 [Last modified: Monday, October 5, 2009 7:09pm]
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