The widely-reported case against former Speaker of the House Ray Sansom came to an abrupt end on Friday when State prosecutors dropped all criminal charges.
In a dramatic end to a Jury Trial nearly two (2) years in the making, criminal charges against Sansom were dropped, in Court, Friday after prosecutors said a judge limited evidence of an alleged Conspiracy to get $6 million in state funding for an airport building a developer wanted to use.
Flanked by friends and his lawyers, Sansom, 48, said it was vindication.
"First I want to thank God," he said, then praised his attorneys. "When I first met with them, they said 'Ray, the truth will set you free' and we saw that today."
Asked if he would have done anything differently, Sansom replied, "absolutely not."
Leon County State Attorney Willie Meggs also dropped the case against Sansom's co-defendant, developer Jay Odom. Both men had been charged with Grand Theft and Conspiracy to Commit Grand Theft. According to the prosecution, the $6 million was steered to Northwest Florida State College, where Sansom took a job (coincidentally) on the same day he was sworn in as speaker of the Florida House in 2008 .
Sansom and Odom agreed to pay about $103,000 each to Northwest Florida State College -- two-thirds of the amount the college spent on planning the airport building. The trustees scrapped the project after Grand Jury indictments were handed down in April 2009 and then-Governor Charlie Crist asked for the money back.
The State's case unraveled on the fifth day of Sansom's Jury Trial, just before a lunch break.
The jury was out and defense lawyers raised objections to testimony State Attorney Meggs planned to introduce to establish a Conspiracy. He was going to bring up a key witness, former college president Bob Richburg, who was also criminally charged but two (2) weeks ago agreed to testify (otherwise known as "snitch") against Sansom and Odom.
Richburg, Meggs later said, would have described conversations with Sansom and Odom about the airport project prior to Sansom getting the money. Meggs also planned to introduce e-mails showing conversations about the building.
But the defense mounted a challenge, saying the state had to prove there was an illegal agreement.
"There's no evidence of conspiracy because there's no evidence of an illegal agreement," attorney Larry Simpson said.
After a lengthy discussion, Circuit Judge Terry Lewis said, "I don't think you have enough to show a conspiracy." He said several college employees and an architect said they were aware of the private use.
Meggs had argued that college trustees did not (two testified during the trial) and neither did other legislators.
But if he could not lay the ground for the conspiracy -- the planning for a hangar and attempts to conceal its nature that he said were clear before Sansom got the money -- Meggs said his case was damaged.
What's more, Meggs said he was limited because the proposed jury instructions would have said, "the passage of legislation, including an appropriations bill, by itself, cannot constitute theft by any of the defendants."
So during lunch, Meggs offered "a plea deal" to both defendants. He would drop the charges if they agreed to wrongdoing, did community service and paid restitution (otherwise known as buying their way out of the criminal charges?).
In the end, Sansom and Odom only agreed to pay the money, and Sansom's attorney, Steve Dobson, said his client resisted that as well. Sansom blamed Meggs and the news media.
Dobson declared, "They were not guilty."
Meggs maintained there was wrongdoing and attributed the defeat to "fundamental" differences in understanding of conspiracy law with Lewis.
"I agree the State was not able to carry its burden of establishing a conspiracy with the court," Meggs said. "And so if I can't establish a conspiracy with the court before the appropriation, I can't get in statements of co-conspirators after the appropriation. And that's what all our evidence is about, is what they did after the appropriation was put into place."
The trial started Monday and more than a dozen witnesses had testified for the State of Florida, leading up to its primary witness, Richburg, who agreed March 11 to testify for the prosecution ("turn State's evidence").
Meggs had argued that the three (3) men worked together to accomplish Odom's goal of getting an airplane hangar then worked to conceal it as an educational facility, contending that college officials scrambled to find a use for the building and even then planned to use half of the space. Meggs presented documents and testimony showing the bulk was for a hangar.
Noting that Meggs first charged the men with Official Misconduct then changed it to Grand Theft after the charges were mostly gutted in court, Dobson said, "I would say the state attorney lost big time."
As if this wasted prosecution hasn't cost the citizens of the State of Florida enough already, Florida law allows a public official who is charged with a crime to seek payment of legal fees if he's not convicted when the charges arose from his public duties. Dobson said he plans to seek payment from the Legislature.
Dobson said he did not know yet what the total fees would be but "because of Mr. Meggs' dogged pursuit, it's going to be big."
Federal investigators have been looking at some aspect of Sansom and Odom's dealings (an FBI agent sat in on some of the depositions of witnesses in the state case). Asked about that, Dobson said "if they are charged in Federal Court, we'll fight that, too. If I am retained."
I particularly love how that last quote was quickly modified...
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