TALLAHASSEE (NSF) – A trial began Thursday to determine whether former House Speaker Ray Sansom deserves to be reimbursed for almost $1 million in legal fees from a failed corruption case, with attorneys for the former lawmaker and the state arguing over whether he was involved in a deal that ultimately ended the case.
Sansom, who lost his speakership and eventually his House seat over the corruption allegations, and his criminal defense attorney are suing the state to try to force it to pay Sansom’s legal bills under a common-law principle that public officials who successfully defend themselves against charges related to public duties are entitled to have legal costs covered.
The state argues that the manner in which prosecutor Willie Meggs decided to drop the case, which concerned a 2007 budget item that was supposed to pay for an emergency operations center in Sansom’s Panhandle district, essentially amounted to a settlement of the case rather than a successful defense.
Meggs agreed to drop the case after being assured that Sansom and a political contributor, Jay Odom, would pay $206,000 to help reimburse the state for design costs of the project, which was never built. Sansom’s attorneys note that Odom actually paid the money and contend that Samson was not really a party to the agreement.
In opening statements, attorney Stephen Turner — who is representing Sansom and his attorney, Stephen Dobson — took direct aim at the state’s attempt to draw a parallel between the payment from Odom and a criminal fine.
“There was no conviction, there was no sentence, there can be no criminal restitution,” Turner said.
But Elizabeth Teegen, an assistant attorney general, said the deal undercuts the claims that Sansom’s attorneys won the trial.
“In this case, having paid $103,000 to the victim, so to speak, of the conspiracy clearly illustrates that there was no successful defense,” Teegen said, referring to what the state says was Sansom’s half of the payment.
The first day of testimony — which featured the rarity of putting both lawyers and a journalist on the stand — gave a glimpse inside the negotiations four years ago that finally ended the long-running saga about the emergency operations center, which Meggs argued was really a thinly disguised effort to build a taxpayer-funded aircraft hangar for Odom.
Both sides agree that the case against Sansom was on the verge of collapse when Leon County Circuit Judge Terry Lewis said he didn’t believe prosecutors had proven that Sansom and Odom were part of a conspiracy with former Northwest Florida State College President Bob Richburg to steal taxpayer money — making it impossible for Meggs to call Richburg as a co-conspirator.
“I felt like that I was about to get the rug pulled out from under me and would not be able to go forward on the other two defendants,” Meggs said Thursday.
Instead, Meggs worked out a deal with the defense to have them pay $206,000, which combined with $103,000 already agreed to by Richburg, would essentially recoup the money already spent on the project. Meggs also released Richburg from the other terms of a deferred prosecution agreement.
On the stand Thursday, Meggs insisted that Dobson was part of the negotiations that ultimately brought the case to an end. He said he wouldn’t have settled the case with just one of the defendants, even though it was likely to fall apart.
James Judkins, the lawyer for Odom, testified that he handled the discussions with Meggs — but kept Dobson informed. Judkins also said that there was “at least a moral obligation,” though not a legal one, for Sansom to repay Odom his half of the money.
At the same time, Judkins made it clear that Sansom was hesitant about the deal.
“Ray’s family was upset about what was going on,” Judkins said. “We were fixing to win the case and I think that’s what they wanted, and Jay Odom preferred that we do what we did.”
Dobson said Sansom wasn’t part of the agreement.
“Just so that it’s clear, your honor, at no time did he agree to pay any money back to the college,” he said.
Dobson also gave insights into a little-known episode in which he hired a lobbyist and tried to get former House Speaker Dean Cannon, who led the chamber from late 2010 to late 2012, to get the Legislature to appropriate money for Sansom’s legal bills.
Dobson said the lobbyist “was led to believe that we would get our fees paid at the very end of Mr. Cannon’s term as speaker.” That never happened.
“At the very tail end of Mr. Cannon’s speakership, he called me and informed me that he was sorry, but he wouldn’t be able to do it,” Dobson said. “But if they had a court order they’d be glad to do it, but he just couldn’t do it. Basically, he couldn’t do it politically, he didn’t think.”
The trial, before Leon County Circuit Judge Angela Dempsey, is set to continue Friday.
The News Service of Florida’s Brandon Larrabee contributed to this report.