TALLAHASSEE – (CBS4/AP) - Former Florida House Speaker Ray Sansom, on trial for allegedly steering state funds to a project to benefit a big political contributor, watched for a second day as prosecutors tried to prove an airplane hanger he helped build was an illegal political plum.
Sansom heard testimony that a co-defendant once mentioned that an airplane hangar at the heart of the criminal case against the two men was being rebranded as an “educational facility” in an effort to get state money that wasn’t flowing through another channel, Destin’s city manager testified Tuesday.
And in other testimony, Okaloosa County’s top emergency manager told jurors that the co-defendant, Jay Odom, had said he knew “how to get money from the state.”
The Panhandle-area government officials took the stand as the state’s witnesses.
Sansom, 48, is charged with arranging to wrongfully get a $6 million appropriation in the 2007 state budget. That money was to build a hangar at the Destin airport at co-defendant Odom’s request, prosecutors say. The hangar reportedly was for Odom’s business use.
Odom, 54, is a developer, jet service owner and major Republican Party donor.
Both men are charged with grand theft and conspiracy to commit grand theft.
Defense attorneys have argued that the project was always intended as a hurricane-proof emergency operations center, or EOC, with room for large vehicles inside the city of Destin.
City Manager Greg Kisela testified about talking to Odom around the time of the state’s 2007 legislative session.
Odom mentioned that a “community budget issue request” for the facility wasn’t going through. Instead, it would be funded with money earmarked for public educational buildings.
James Judkins, Odom’s lawyer, showed jurors a copy of the request, with Sen. Don Gaetz, R-Niceville, as sponsor.
The request was for a 30,400-square-foot “full service emergency operations center”, showing that it would cost $10 million — $6 million from the state, with $4 million coming from somewhere else.
The request does not mention Odom by name, but does refer to a “public-private partnership.”
State Attorney Willie Meggs has said the scheme was to have Northwest Florida State College build the hangar with that money, include some classrooms to call it an “educational facility” for state funding purposes, and then lease most of the building to Odom to use for his business.
The college’s former president Bob Richburg, who previously was a defendant in the case, is expected to testify against Sansom and Odom in return for charges against him being dropped. Sansom took a six-figure job at the college on the day he was sworn in as speaker in 2008.
Defense lawyers tried to get Kisela to say there was some need for an EOC in Destin, south of Choctawatchee Bay, because of its relative inaccessibility during a hurricane.
That sparked a written question from one juror, who asked how many times Destin was “cut off” by a storm in the last 10 years. Two times, Kisela answered, once by Hurricane Ivan in 2004 and another time by Hurricane Dennis a year later.
Later, Dino Villani, Okaloosa County’s public safety director, recalled talking to Odom about the project for the first time in 2005. He said he told Odom he didn’t think he would be able to get state money to help build a Destin emergency operations center at the city’s airport.
“He wasn’t concerned,” Villani said of Odom’s reaction. “He said he knew how to get money from the state; he knew people.”
Because Odom owned Destin Jet, a private jet service, he wanted to build his own service station for private planes. Such facilities include a hangar for plane maintenance.
Mike Hansen, a longtime legislative employee, worked for the House Budget Counsel’s office when Sansom was appropriations chair. He testified Sansom had given him a note about the Destin facility, which referred to it as the “Joint Use Project.”
The note had a circle with a line through it, Hansen said: “That meant it was important.”
But under questioning by Stephen Dobson, Sansom’s attorney, Hansen said he received dozens of similar notes during budget time, all wanting different items. Hansen said Sansom’s paperwork didn’t stick out as inappropriate.
Skip Martin worked for Hansen at the time. As a deputy budget director for the Florida House, he was in charge of Public Education Capital Outlay, or PECO, money. It was PECO money that was ultimately budgeted for the Destin project.
Martin testified he must have added the item to the 2007 budget, though he did not remember doing so. Scribbled on top of the note was “From MPH per SD to fund,” with Hansen being “MPH” and Sansom being “SD,” or speaker-designate.
The trial, which is expected to last two weeks, continues at the Leon County Courthouse on Wednesday with testimony expected from former Gov. Charlie Crist. Meggs has told the trial judge he intends to ask Crist whether he would have vetoed the appropriation if he knew the building was for Odom’s use. Meggs also wants to ask if the reason for the money was misrepresented.
Sansom’s wife and three daughters attended part of the trial Monday, but were not in the courtroom Tuesday.