Sansom Lawyers Trying to Get Case Thrown Out
Attorneys for former House Speaker Ray Sansom tried Wednesday to get the Destin Republican off the hook for a criminal trial that will examine whether he broke the law when he steered millions of dollars to Northwest Florida State College and appeared to benefit from the process.
Sansom, along with Okaloosa County developer Jay Odom and former Northwest Florida State College President Bob Richburg have been indicted on official misconduct charges. Sansom and Richburg each face an additional perjury charge for allegedly lying to a Leon County Grand Jury. They are scheduled to stand trial at the end of September.
The state's case hinges on Sansom's power as budget chairman in 2007-2008 to steer millions to the college in a tight budget year. After the money was appropriated for the college, Sansom was given a vice presidency job there, which would partially include leading a new leadership institute that was created as a part of the funding. The state dollars were also slated to go to an emergency operations center that would have simultaneously served as an airport hangar for frequent Republican Party and Sansom contributor Odom, who had previously tried to secure funding for the structure.
“The problem is he wanted the state of Florida to build it for him,” said State Attorney Willie Meggs. “And he got his cohort Ray Sansom to make that happen.”
Attorneys for the three men said there were no lies in the official documents about the money for the alleged hangar because it was also supposed to be used for emergency operations and potentially for classes. However, space could possibly be leased out, which schools are encouraged to do to make money, the defense argued.
Sansom attorney Stephen Dobson said it was impossible for Sansom and Richburg to have even intended for the legislation to benefit Odom given that only the Board of Trustees had the power to lease the building. He also pointed out that the case could set a precedent for prosecutors to check up on every law or budget item approved by the Legislature.
“This is an attempt by the state attorney's office to veto by indictment,” Dobson said.
Sansom, Richburg and Odom will just have to wait for now to see if the case will continue or not. Circuit Judge Terry Lewis, who presided over the motions, appeared conflicted over both the state's and defense's arguments, peppering Meggs about the potential for precedent setting and whether he had hard evidence that proved the three men were deliberately trying to hide their intention of building an airport hangar.
But he also did not appear entirely persuaded by the statements by the defense.
“The question is did we get together and talk about what we're going to do and how we're going to do it,” Lewis said.
Lewis has given the defense until Friday to provide some additional information to the court. Meggs will be given a few days to respond, and then Lewis will make his decision.
Separately, a House committee is investigating whether Sansom acted inappropriately after an Odessa resident filed a rules complaint against the lawmaker. Susan Smith, the complainant, wrote that her "respect for the Florida House had been greatly diminished by Speaker Sansom's actions."
The committee, however, is holding off on investigating until October because many of the witnesses it would like to call are also tied up in the criminal case. If Lewis does not throw out the case, it is possible that the defense could appeal or make other motions that would push back the date of the criminal trial and thus the House investigation.
Sansom did not make any statements to the press following Wednesday's court appearance, but Dobson, speaking on behalf of his client, said there was no evidence that “anyone tried to hide anything at all.”