Jury picked for Sansom trial

Article Courtesy of  The Miami Herald

By Steve Bousquet

Published March 20, 2011


A jury was selected for the trial of former House speaker Ray Sansom, who is accused of grand theft and conspiracy.

— A jury of four women and two men will decide the fate of Ray Sansom, the former House speaker accused of grand theft and conspiracy in budget dealings the state says he disguised to benefit political ally Jay Odom.

State prosecutor Willie Meggs and lawyers for the two men took four hours Friday to agree on the six people who will decide the outcome of a case that toppled a powerful lawmaker, cost a longtime college president his job and forced the Legislature to be more open in crafting the state budget.

Circuit Judge Terry Lewis will hear opening arguments Monday. The trial should take at least one week.

Prospective witnesses include former Gov. Charlie Crist, former Senate President Ken Pruitt, former Sen. Lisa Carlton, Rep. Matt Gaetz, R-Destin, and numerous current and former legislative staff members and employees of the city of Destin and Walton County.

Meggs would not say whether he would call Crist as a witness.

“You all have to come to court,” Meggs told reporters.

Jurors include a 21-year-old Florida State University student; a 38-year-old woman who works as a Publix cashier; a 61-year-old woman who manages a medical office and a 55-year-old woman who works for the state Auditor General.

The auditor was chosen after saying her memories of the case were “foggy.”

“He was the speaker,” she said, “and there were allegations of fraud, misspent funds. But I don’t have the facts.”

The male jurors include a 30-year-old employee of FSU’s human resources division and a 55-year-old consultant for startup businesses.

All six assured the judge and lawyers they can weigh the facts and come to an objective conclusion.

Any pool of prospective jurors in the state capital includes a sizeable number of people with ties to Tallahassee’s two biggest employers: state government and universities.

Both sides dismissed a number of people in those categories. The six jurors were chosen following extensive questioning of their political views, newspaper reading and TV watching habits, experience with police and the courts, and opinions of how the Legislature works.

Sansom, 48, was pressured to resign the speaker’s post in 2009 and is the only person who held the prestigious office in modern times whose official portrait will never be displayed in the House chamber.

Flanked by his two lawyers, Sansom conferred with them often during jury selection and took extensive notes on a yellow legal pad.

“I’m delighted we got a jury,” Sansom’s lawyer, Steve Dobson, said as he left the courtroom. “Mr. Sansom is anxious to get this resolved and have his side of the case heard.”

It’s up to Meggs to prove his central charge: that Sansom and Odom conspired to steal tax dollars in a 2007 legislative appropriation for a Destin building that would have been used during hurricanes, but also had classrooms for Northwest Florida State College and hangar space to store airplanes for Odom’s executive jet business.

Former college president Bob Richburg, who hired Sansom at the college, could play a pivotal and explosive role at the trial. Richburg struck a deal with prosecutors last week to testify against Sansom and Odom in exchange for his charges being dismissed.

Defense lawyers hinted their strategy would be that Sansom’s dealings might have been unwise or questionable but not a crime.

“I’ve heard all my life people making fun of how the Legislature spends money, or Congress,” Odom’s attorney Jimmy Judkins told the group.