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An Honorable Thing

By James Call


Tallahassee, FL – The prosecutor said it was theft. The politician said it served the public interest. If Tallahassee State Attorney Willie Meggs is ever going to prosecute his case against former Florida House Speaker Ray Sansom, James Call reports Meggs must get a circuit judge to stop allowing the defense to file motions to dismiss charges in a case tied to a project for a panhandle college.

Attorneys for Sansom, Northwest Florida State College President Bob Richburg, and Destin-area developer Jay Odom maintain that an indictment charging them with conspiracy to steal a $6-million appropriation misrepresents what happened. The state attorney said the three worked a plan to hide the intended purpose of a facility so that Odom could use it for his jet business.

Sansom's attorney, Steve Dobson, said Sansom got the money to build a training facility that could also serve as an emergency management staging area, and that what Sansom did was work to protect the citizens of Destin.

"He has been besmirched and attacked when, in fact, he did a very honorable thing."

The $6-million was in the 2007 state budget. State Attorney Willie Meggs Meggs has been blocked in taking the case to trial by continual defense motions to dismiss the charges.

"This needs to stop. You have already ruled there are disputed facts. You've already ruled that it is a question for the jury."

Meggs took a set of facts to a grand jury in 2009 and got indictments against Sansom, Richburg and Odom. This led to Richburg losing his job as college president and Sansom resigning as House Speaker, one of the three most powerful positions in Florida government.

Circuit Judge Terry Lewis has drawn a relatively small box for Meggs to argue his case. He ruled that if a theft had occurred, it was in the form of controlling the $6-million in a way to deprive the public of the stated purpose of the building. Meggs' theory is any talk of classroom space and staging area for an emergency was a sham; camouflage to cover tax dollars building a hangar for a wealthy, well-connected developer. Meggs points to the testimony of the college vice president in charge of the project.

"He knew from talking to Richburg that it was going to be at Destin Jet, that it was going to be a hangar. So a hangar at Destin Jet must be a hangar for Destin Jet, and so he knew that. That was his purpose, and that's his sworn testimony. That is a fact that a jury ought to be able to hear, that from the onset the plan was to build a hangar."

However, Richburg's attorney, Hank Cox, told the judge that both the St. Petersburg Times reporter whose writings brought attention to the project and Willie Meggs apparently focused on selective facts to paint an incomplete picture. Here is Cox on Meggs' presentation to the Grand Jury that handed down the indictments:

"The county said we have a different operation. The city said we want it and we need it. What happens in the Leon County Grand Jury? He calls not one person from Destin. He knew exactly what he was doing. He called the Okaloosa county people to say no, we didn't request this. But the city of Destin to a person we want this, we need this."

Meggs told the court he, too, talked to people with the city, and he came away with a different perception. Lewis indicated he would rule on the motions to dismiss before the two sides meet in his chamber again. They are scheduled back in court July 29th. The defense is seeking sanctions against Meggs for public comments he made about the defendants.