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Sansom Case Continues

By James Call


Tallahassee, FL – A Leon County judge is allowing criminal charges to proceed against former Florida House Speaker Ray Sansom. James Call reports he did signal that the prosecutor has a high hurdle to clear to prove his case.

Judge Terry Lewis has scheduled two days in June to hear defense motions to dismiss grand theft and conspiracy charges against former Destin Representative Ray Sansom and two others. State Attorney Willie Meggs says they conspired to control a $6-million state expenditure for a Panhandle college's classroom building. However, in a thirteen-page ruling, Lewis noted that Meggs is preparing a case without a precedent.

"I think there are some real problems and concerns I would have with the extension of the theft statute being extended to this."

Florida State University Law School Professor Mark Seidenfeld said, "The fact that there is no case doesn't mean it's never happened before. It just means no one has ever brought a charge of this type before."

Meggs alleges that Sansom, through fraud and misrepresentation as the Florida House's chief budget writer, inserted into the state budget $6-million for Northwest Florida State College. The school was directed to use the money to build a joint-use facility, ten miles from its Niceville campus. The theft would occur, alleged Meggs, when the building was designed so that 80-percent of its space could be leased to a private jet business.

Lewis gave Meggs the go ahead to continue building his case but warned he's venturing into unchartered waters. Meggs said, "Theft means use or obtain the property of another. The judge ruled that the property of another can be the property of the state or property of an individual, so this is not uncharted at all. You can steal from the state. We charge people with stealing computers or stealing property from the state all the time. So there's nothing unchartered about that."

Meggs is seeing if it is possible to navigate between respect for the Constitution's separation of powers and a legal definition of theft. He is confined to arguing that the $6-million was stolen not as cash but through the control of an expenditure. Professor Siedenfeld said to prove if a crime had occurred, one would need to know the Legislature's intent in spending the money.

"In this case, if you have to prove that, you have to go to the Legislature and say what was the reason that you really gave the money,' and that is just something that we don't do. The courts don't ask Legislatures what is the real reason for what you did.' They can state their reasons if they want. They don't even have to state any reasons, and then the people have to evaluate it and it all becomes political."

At times people may find the legislative process unseemly, but Siedenfeld said that does not make it criminal. A problem for Meggs, as Judge Lewis noted, is that almost every piece of legislation will benefit private individuals, and a public good and a private benefit are not mutually exclusive. In allowing the case to proceed, Lewis wrote that Meggs will have to prove that the purported public purpose was to hide the intended private benefit. In those words, Sansom's attorney Stephen Dobson sees an opening for more defense motions.

"It's pretty unheard of to say you are stealing an appropriation of the Legislature, especially when the building was going to be exactly what it was supposed to be. I mean, that's sort of the misnomer that everybody has missed, that it was going to be exactly what it was supposed to be."

Judge Lewis has scheduled two days in June to hear defense motions to dismiss grand theft and conspiracy charges. One motion seeks sanctions against Meggs for release of grand jury testimony and comments he made about the defendants.