The unsatisfying end to the criminal trial of former House Speaker Ray Sansom should not be misread as an endorsement of his abuse of public office. Secretly scheming to earmark $6 million for an airport hangar disguised as a college building to benefit a political ally is wrong even if a jury did not get to decide if it is a crime. The real outrage is that this scandal reflects the ethical swamp in Tallahassee and may well be legal.
The abrupt decision by Leon County State Attorney Willie Meggs on Friday to drop all charges against Sansom and developer Jay Odom five days into the trial came as a surprise. It would have been more palatable if the trial had ended with a judge's order or a jury verdict, regardless of the outcome. It also would have been useful to hear the testimony from Bob Richburg, the former college president involved in this mess who had agreed to testify against Sansom and Odom in return for avoiding prosecution. But Meggs deserves credit for pursuing a difficult case, and Circuit Judge Terry Lewis' pinched views on proving a conspiracy gutted the state attorney's argument and left him little room to maneuver.
Despite the misuse of public money and efforts to conceal it from other legislators and college officials, it has long been clear it would be difficult to hold Sansom and his pals accountable in the criminal justice system. The judge threw out much of the original official misconduct charges months ago. Persuading a jury to convict on charges of grand theft and conspiracy to commit grand theft would have been challenging, because the evidence is not as easily digestible as a man stealing a car. A more reform-minded Legislature would get creative and craft corruption legislation that would hold public officials more accountable for misspending public money and deceiving taxpayers.
The defense for Sansom was essentially that everybody does it — legislators seek money for projects back home, and powerful lawmakers circumvent the arcane appropriations process to get what they want. That's certainly true, but that does not make it right. And Sansom did not just get public money for a local public project. He conspired with Odom and Richburg to get public money for a college building at an airport that was designed as a hangar and was going to house Odom's airplanes. Using that logic, legislators could routinely appropriate public money for projects that they label as public but secretly benefit private benefactors. The scandal is that under current law such deception and misuse of public money may be legal.
Sansom claims he has been vindicated because Meggs dropped the charges. But Floridians know better, and he has paid a price for his abuse of power. He gave up his unadvertised, $110,000-a-year job at Northwest Florida State College. His colleagues forced him to resign as speaker, and he resigned his House seat on the eve of an ethics trial before a panel of his peers. He was indicted by a grand jury on criminal charges. Now Sansom, Odom and Richburg will pay $103,000 each to the college to cover its costs for planning a building that will not be built.
Despite all of this, Sansom insists he would have done nothing differently. Surely his more enlightened former colleagues in the Florida Legislature have learned more than he has from a scandal that has left a permanent stain on state government.