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Judge Dismisses Much of the Case Against Ray Sansom

A Leon County circuit judge gutted an official misconduct case against former House Speaker Ray Sansom and two other defendants in a case that had been expected to also put the legislative budgeting process on trial.

Judge Terry Lewis released an order Monday throwing out the majority of the case against Sansom, former Northwest Florida State College President Bob Richburg, and Okaloosa County developer Jay Odom, saying the charges were unconstitutional. He also dismissed a perjury charge against Richburg, but left one against Sansom in place.

Lewis didn’t exactly exonerate the defendants, though.

“It is natural to want to punish those involved,” Lewis wrote. “But not every wrongful conduct is a crime. Sometimes the remedy for such conduct must be political rather than judicial. This is one of those situations.”

Sansom, Richburg and Odom were indicted on official misconduct charges this spring in a case related to Sansom's actions as budget chairman where he steered millions of dollars to Northwest Florida State College in a tight budget year. The money he got into the budget for the college included an appropriation for a building that prosecutors say was an airplane hangar for Odom, a personal friend and contributor.

State attorney Willie Meggs and a Leon county grand jury charged that the three men intentionally misled lawmakers into voting for an emergency operations center, not an airplane hangar.

“They thought they were voting for a joint use workforce center for a college,” Meggs said Monday. “They didn't know they were voting to build a college structure on a runway at an airport 15 miles from campus.”

Sansom was also offered a $110,000-per-year vice presidency at the college following his tenure as budget chairman, spurring accusations of a quid pro quo. As part of his job, he would have run a leadership institute funded by the money he helped steer to the college.

Sansom stepped down from the speakership and the job at the college in January, only months after ascending to the House’s top post. He vowed throughout the process that he would be vindicated when all of the evidence was presented to the court.

Sansom attorney Stephen Dobson said he was still trying to “digest the order” before deciding whether to file more motions to have the final perjury charge dismissed.

“We will do that and we will evaluate where we need to go,” he said.

In his order, Lewis wrote that there was no way the three men could falsify an appropriations act as was charged. But Lewis noted that the grand jury was still critical of the “process and a culture” of a Legislature that seemed to lack transparency and that large appropriations such as the one benefiting the college and Odom were a matter of course.

“We have heard that this $6 million dollars was likened to a gnat hitting a windshield,” Lewis wrote, referring to a phrase used in grand jury testimony. “It is small wonder, with this attitude, that Florida is broke financially. The Legislature needs to remember that they do not print money, and that whether it is general revenue dollars, federal grants, matching funds or PECO dollars, it is all taxpayer money, and it needs to be spent wisely.”

Meggs said his office is gathering documents to take to the Attorney General's office to see whether the case can be appealed.

Lewis left standing part of a perjury charge against Sansom as well as a slight portion of the misconduct charge related to a joint-use note that simply asks that the House include $6 million in its budget request for the operations center at the airport. However, Lewis simply wrote that there was not enough information for him to tell what exactly the note was and “how it relates to the appropriations act.”

Meggs said the joint-use note was such a small part of his prosecution that he may not proceed with it and instead wait to hear from the attorney general's office on whether an appeal could go forward.

Jimmy Judkins, a lawyer for Odom, said that he and his client were “tickled to death” with the ruling, but acknowledged there may still be work ahead depending on whether there’s an appeal.

Also, in addition to the still existing perjury charge, Sansom, R-Destin, still faces an investigation from a House committee that could ultimately result in expulsion from the Legislature.

Odessa resident Susan Smith filed a complaint in January with the House saying essentially that Sansom had damaged the integrity of the Legislature. A special committee, led by Rep. Bill Galvano, R-Bradenton, is slated to meet this week and name an independent counsel who will present the entire case and evidence to the group of lawmakers.

The committee moved slowly in deference to the criminal proceedings, but Galvano has previously said the committee will try to make a recommendation to the House by the start of the 2010 legislative session.

Smith told the News Service Monday that she doesn't believe the judge's decision should affect the committee's work because her complaint is based on ethics, not law. Regardless of the judge's order, lawmakers still need to examine the process of budgeting, she said.

“It still looks bad. It's sleazy,” Smith said. “And maybe that's business as usual in Tallahassee. And maybe that's the problem of why the state's in the mess that it's in.”

Judkins said the case has brought to light more about the process and has caused many lawmakers to re-evaluate how transparent the budgeting process should be. Both the grand jury indictment and Lewis' court order were highly critical of the Legislature.

“I think the Legislature has now realized that it was a politically inadvisable way to handle their appropriations...If Mr. Meggs was looking for change, I think he has gotten it,” Judkins said.

A spokeswoman for House Speaker Larry Cretul, who was elevated to the position after Sansom was forced to step down from the job, said he was unavailable for comment.

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