Dramatic end to Ray Sansom trial gives way to debate on what happened

The drama that surrounded the end of the trial against former House Speak Ray Sansom surprised many across Florida.

Article Courtesy of  The St. Petersburg Times


Published April 3, 2011

Juror Pamela McLean returned from lunch expecting to hear hours of additional testimony in the Ray Sansom trial. Instead she was told she could go home.

“It caught us by surprise,” McLean said. “It looked like there was more to come.”

As the corruption case against the former House speaker fell apart Friday in a Tallahassee courtroom, surprise reverberated across Florida.

Leon County State Attorney Willie Meggs abruptly announced he was dropping grand theft and conspiracy charges against Sansom and developer Jay Odom for their role in an alleged scheme to get $6 million in state funding for an airport building Odom wanted to use for his private jet business in Destin.

Meggs had yet to present some key evidence, including testimony from former Northwest Florida State College president Bob Richburg, a defendant who agreed to testify against Sansom and Odom. But the prosecutor said he could not proceed because the judge ruled he had not established grounds for a conspiracy.

The end — both dramatic and anticlimactic — gave way to public debate about just what happened and whether Meggs or Circuit Judge Terry Lewis was correct.

“For those of us in trial, it’s not surprising,” said Jeff Brown, a defense attorney in St. Petersburg. “It’s a hurdle we have to overcome or make the government overcome. What is surprising is (Meggs) did not have enough evidence to show a conspiracy first.”

Meggs contends he did; the defense maintains his case was bogus from the start.

The crux came after the jury was let out just before noon Friday. Meggs was preparing to bring up Richburg, who, Meggs said, would have provided evidence that the defendants discussed the project and putting it at the airport to benefit Odom.

Meggs also had an e-mail in which Richburg described the deal to Sansom before the money was secured and said he and Odom agreed it was to be “held close” until “after your actions.”

But the defense objected, setting off a 20-minute back and forth. Odom attorney Larry Simpson said that in order to establish a conspiracy, the state had to prove there was an illegal agreement to commit a crime. “There has been absolutely no evidence offered to the court of any agreement whatsoever,” he said.

Simpson reminded Judge Lewis that he already established it was not a crime for a private citizen to petition the government for help. And he noted the $6 million was put in the budget and approved by the Legislature and governor.

Meggs had long argued that the Legislature was unaware of the true intent of the building and former Gov. Charlie Crist testified that he would have vetoed the project had he known more.

In court Friday, assistant state attorney Eddie Evans argued that college officials were unaware of the project. Once they learned that a private individual was to use a large part of the building, he said, they were forced to come up with a curriculum to justify the use of state education funds.

“They’re scrambling to find a real public use for it,” Evans said.

Lewis, however, noted that the officials — a vice president and architect and curriculum planner — said they were aware of Odom’s intentions. After a few more minutes, Lewis declared that the state had not shown a conspiracy.

At that point, Meggs said he felt that he faced Lewis directing a verdict in favor of Sansom and Odom. So he approached the men with a deal to drop the case and for them to pay $103,000 each in restitution to the college.

In an interview this week, Meggs said he was perplexed because he laid out the alleged conspiracy in May 2010 when the defense filed a motion to dismiss. Lewis denied the motion. “He just made a 180-degree turn,” Meggs asserted.

But the standard for allowing a case to proceed is different than an evidentiary ruling at trial, experts said. At that point Friday, Meggs had to essentially show he had the goods, and Lewis felt he fell short.

“I’m still flabbergasted by the idea that the judge would consider the lack of a clandestine nature would be serious proof the conspiracy is not in existence and not listen to the last and probably most important state witness in determining that,” said Michael L. Seigel, a former federal prosecutor who now teaches law at the University of Florida.

Lewis did offer Meggs the chance to proffer additional evidence, but he did not. Contacted by the St. Petersburg Times, Lewis said he did not want to comment on Meggs’ actions and referred to what he said in court.

Bobbi Flowers, a former prosecutor who is now a professor at Stetson University College of Law, said Meggs would have been laying out facts in the most favorable light when he fought the motion to dismiss last year. “Once they got into trial, the facts may not have been as clear.”

She said public corruption cases are tough because the law does not always fit squarely with the alleged wrongdoing. Meggs originally charged the men with official misconduct but that was largely dismissed in late 2009, causing him to rework the case as grand theft. (Defense attorneys said it was a sign of vindictiveness on Meggs’ part.)

“As a prosecutor you see conduct by a public official that you know is somehow inappropriate, it violates the trust that the public has in public officials,” Flowers said. “Sometimes you have to try to take the laws on the books and use them in ways that may be a little different than normal. ... But your case has to be a slam dunk factually. And unfortunately for the prosecutor, this was a tough case.”

McLean declined to discuss the merits of the arguments and said her surprise was merely the timing of how the case ended. (Several other jurors reached by the Times also declined comment.) She said the case was complex — involving the intricacies of the state budget — but the jury was working hard to understand it all.

“I think we would have come to a fair decision,” she said.

For Sansom, 48, that would have meant acquittal. Even though it never got that far, he said justice prevailed and that he looks forward to getting on with life and returning to his love of education. He now works as a dean at a charter school in Okaloosa County.

State prosecutor drops charges against Sansom