State prosecutor drops charges against Sansom

Article Courtesy of  The Miami Herald


Published March 27, 2011

Leon County State Attorney Willie Meggs dropped the case against former House Speaker Ray Sansom and developer Jay Odom on Friday.

As Meggs announced there would be "no further action," Sansom hugged one of his attorneys. Sansom and Odom have agreed to each pay about $103,000, the same amount former Northwest Florida State College President Bob Richburg paid in an agreement to testify against the men.

"First I want to thank God," Sansom said afterward, then he thanked his attorneys. "When I first met with them, they said 'Ray the truth will set you free' and we saw that today."

Meggs maintained that wrongdoing occurred but said he had a "fundamental" disagreement with the court whether actions that occurred before the appropriation were relevant. That evidence was critical to Meggs' case.

The case was proceeding Friday, but shortly before lunch the jury went out and there was a disagreement over the next witness, which was to be Richburg. That brought up the question of the standard for conspiracy.

They broke for lunch, and afterward Meggs came back and abruptly announced that they had an agreement to drop the charges in exchange for Sansom and Odom agreeing to repay the college.

The men had been charged with grand theft and conspiracy to commit grand theft as part of $6 million Sansom put in the state budget for an airport building. The maximum penalty for each individual was 30 years in prison.

The trial started Monday and dozens of witnesses had testified for the prosecution, leading up to its primary witness, Richburg, who turned state's evidence March 11 against his co-defendants in exchange for having charges against himself dropped.

The scandal broke in late 2008 when Sansom, R-Destin, took a six-figure job at the college on the same day he was sworn in as speaker of the Florida House. He said he saw no conflict of interest.

The St. Petersburg Times then reported a series of stories showing how Sansom used his powerful position as House budget chief to funnel tens of millions to the school, including $6 million for the airport building in 2007.

He and Richburg insisted that it was for an emergency operations and training center and that there would be no private use. But records and other evidence pointed to Odom's plan to use part of the building to store aircraft for his private jet business, which he built next door at Destin Airport.

The airport building is what drew the attention of Meggs, who got a complaint from a citizen outraged by what he read in the newspaper.

Though Sansom denied it when first asked, records and interviews indicated that Odom wanted to use the building for his executive jet business, Destin Jet.

Odom had known Sansom for years and became a major ally as Sansom climbed the ranks in the state GOP. Over the years, Odom contributed nearly $1 million to Republican candidates, Sansom included, and the state party. Politicians flew around in his plane.

Odom had the perfect location - Destin Airport - where he already had a land lease from Okaloosa County for Destin Jet. In 2007, he got the city of Destin to approve a resolution asking the state for $6 million to pay for his building, saying he would turn it over to emergency officials for use as a staging area in a major storm. The request went nowhere.


Ray Sansom listens to testimony during trial on Wednesday, March 23, 2011 in Tallahassee, Fla. Sansom is charged with scheming to get a $6 million budget appropriation in 2007 to build a hangar at the Destin airport at co-defendant Odom's request. The hangar was allegedly for Jay Odom's use; he is the owner of a jet service.

Time line of the Sansom case

Nov. 18, 2008: Rep. Ray Sansom, R-Destin, is sworn in as speaker of the Florida House. The same day he takes a job at Northwest Florida State College.
Nov. 19: College announces Sansom job.
Dec. 7: The St. Petersburg Times/Miami Herald Tallahassee Bureau, after reporting millions Sansom secured for the school, documents a link between a private developer's request for a state-funded airplane hangar and $6 million in funding Sansom got for an airport building to be used by the college.
Jan. 5, 2009: Under widespread pressure, Sansom quits his college job.
Jan. 26: Grand jury decides to investigate.
Feb. 2: House Republicans vote to replace Sansom as speaker with Rep. Larry Cretul of Ocala.
April 17: Grand jury indicts Sansom on felony official misconduct charge related to airport funding.
April 28: College trustees give up on airport project, return money to state.
May 27: Grand jury issues an additional indictment, adding perjury charge for Sansom and charges for college president Bob Richburg and developer Jay Odom.
June 26: Investigator finds probable cause that Sansom damaged "faith and confidence" in the Florida House. A legislative panel is convened to hear the case.
Oct. 5: Circuit Judge Terry Lewis throws out part of the charges against Sansom. State Attorney Willie Meggs seeks appeal.
Jan. 6, 2010: Meggs charges Sansom, Richburg and Odom with grand theft and conspiracy to commit grand theft.
Jan. 26: Sansom files motion accusing Meggs of misconduct in the case, including making public statements and releasing grand jury transcripts to newspapers.
Feb. 21: Sansom resigns his House seat on eve of ethics trial before a panel of his peers.
Oct. 19: Judge Lewis faults Meggs' behavior in the case but said it did not amount to prosecutorial misconduct and declines to dismiss the charges.
March 11, 2011: Richburg turns state's evidence and agrees to testify against Sansom and Odom. He tells investigators that the building was put at the airport because it would benefit Odom.
March 18: A jury of four women and two men is picked for the trial.
March 21: The trial begins.
March 25: Charges against Sansom and Odom are dropped.