State Politics

Sansom indicted after grand jury hears air hangar deal

TALLAHASSEE — Ray Sansom, the ousted Speaker of the Florida House, was indicted Friday on a felony charge that he falsified the state budget to get $6 million for an aircraft hangar sought by a developer friend and major GOP donor.

A scathing grand jury report concluded that Sansom “because of his friendship and political contributions violated the trust that the citizens of Florida should expect from its elected representatives.”

The 46-year-old Destin Republican was booked into Leon County jail at 3:35 p.m. Friday and was released on his own recognizance. He said he would be vindicated at trial.

“As a legislator, I have always worked hard for my constituents and my district to bring needed projects and funding to the Panhandle,” Sansom said in a statement.

The indictment grew directly out of a series of stories by the Herald Times Tallahassee Bureau, which documented the striking similarities between the college building Sansom funded and the airport hangar his friend had sought.

The news stunned Tallahassee, where the back-room budget maneuver at the heart of the criminal charge is practiced this time every year. After the news broke, lawmakers warned that Sansom remains innocent until proven guilty, and nobody suggested he leave his seat in the House.

But while the grand jury broadly criticized a system that lets a handful of powerful

lawmakers make million-dollar decisions in secret, it also used blunt terms to explain what made this criminal behavior: “Sansom used the power of his position to accomplish what (his developer friend) was unable to do for three years.”

In other words, the primary beneficiary of Sansom’s deft budget moves was a private entity, a jet company owned by a wealthy friend and political contributor.

The grand jury also indicted Bob Richburg, the president of Northwest Florida State College, which accepted the construction money Sansom inserted into the 2007 budget.

The charge against Sansom and Richburg is official misconduct. It is a third-degree felony punishable by a maximum five-year prison sentence and a $5,000 fine.

The indictment said the men did “unlawfully falsify or cause another person to falsify, an official record — the 2007-08 state budget — with corrupt intent to obtain a benefit’’ for another person.

Richburg also was indicted on a perjury charge for testifying that there was never discussion to have developer Jay Odom use the building to store aircraft after the college got the $6 million.

The grand jury said the college had “every intention’’ of subleasing part of the building to Odom. But for newspaper scrutiny, it went on, the deal would have gone unnoticed and “Jay Odom’s planned (hangar) would have been successfully funded by taxpayer dollars.”

Odom refused an invitation to tell his version of events to the grand jury. To avoid having to offer immunity, State Attorney Willie Meggs only sought voluntary testimony and didn’t use subpoenas.

He said he did not seek charges against Odom because there does not seem to be a law against a private citizen seeking state money.

But the grand jury report makes a strong connection between the $6 million airport building and the political contributions, totalling more than $1 million, that Odom made to the Republican Party of Florida, to a political committee Sansom controlled and to Sansom’s own campaigns.

“While direct evidence was not developed that Jay Odom would acquire an aircraft hangar in exchange for his generous campaign contributions, there is a strong inference of impropriety,” the grand jury stated.

Similarly, the grand jury said that in arranging a secret meeting of the college board of trustees, “the spirit of the Sunshine Law was clearly violated by both President Richburg and Representative Sansom.”

“The meeting, in part, was to thank the college’s board of trustees for taking responsibility for the Destin Project, an aircraft hangar,” the grand jury report read.

Sansom has been under fire ever since he accepted a $110,000 a year job at the college on the day last November when he was sworn in as speaker of the House.

The Herald/Times then revealed that over the previous two years, when he controlled the budget, Sansom funneled about $35 million in extra or accelerated funding to the small school in Niceville.

Sansom defended the appropriations as open and transparent, saying the budget was available for all lawmakers to see before a final vote. The 18-member grand jury, however, described the budget process as a secretive one, where the most powerful lawmakers reward themselves.

“We . . . heard that this $6 million was likened to a gnat hitting a windshield. It is small wonder, with this attitude, that Florida is broke financially.”

With intensifying media coverage and several investigations mounting, Sansom resigned from the job after two months and said he would step down as speaker temporarily. But fellow Republicans permanently ousted him, seeing the controversy as a distraction and a possible taint to the party brand.

All along, the most serious question surrounding Sansom has been the $6 million for the

building at Destin Airport.

The Herald/Times uncovered numerous overlapping connections between the college plans and Odom’s designs for a taxpayer-funded hangar that he promised to turn over to emergency

officials during a storm.

Odom had been trying to build a private jet business at Destin Airport since 2004 but suffered a string of legal and other setbacks.

Then in 2006, he proposed getting $6 million in state construction money to build a

hurricane-proof hangar on some of the land he had leased from Okaloosa County to open Destin Jet.

Odom planned to park the larger jets in his fleet in the building and offer aircraft maintenance. In exchange for public financing, Odom would turn the building over to emergency officials during natural disasters for use as a staging area. Destin city officials endorsed the project, but Odom never got state money.

About the same time, Sansom said he approached Northwest Florida State College with an offer: He could get the school $6 million in unbudgeted money if the school wanted to build a training facility for first responders that could double as an emergency operations staging area in times of natural disaster. The school said yes and Sansom inserted the money into the budget.

Despite various questions and connections, Richburg, Sansom and Odom have insisted the projects were not linked. On Friday, the grand jury concluded otherwise:

“Officials can call the building whatever they desire, but the plans paid for by taxpayer dollars is an aircraft hangar.”

The college recently put the project out to bid and did not respond to questions Friday whether it would be stopped.

News of the indictments, announced just before noon, triggered surprise and sadness across the street at the Capitol where Sansom’s dealings with a state college had already caused major disruption.

House members who were debating the state budget Friday afternoon were seen passing around copies of the indictment. Many thought he would avoid charges or that the secretive meeting would have been the primary issue.

“I think we’re a little taken aback. Nobody expected it,” said Rep. Jimmy Patronis, R-Panama City.

House Speaker Larry Cretul, the Ocala Republican who took over in March, said, “My heart goes out to Ray Sansom and his family in this very difficult time.”

Republican Gov. Charlie Crist, who had earlier dismissed Democratic calls for a state police investigation as politically motivated, called the news “distressing.”

But Crist said it is important to remember that “an indictment is not a conviction.”

The governor said he has not made a decision about whether to remove Richburg from his post while the charges are still pending. The college announced on Friday afternoon that Richburg was taking a leave of absence.

As for whether Sansom should step down from his seat Crist said, “that’s an issue for

the House.”

Herald/Times staff writers Lucy Morgan, Mary Ellen Klas, Steve Bousquet and Marc Caputo contributed to this report.