TALLAHASSEE, Fla. (AP) — A former Florida lawmaker is trying to get the state to pay more than $800,000 in legal fees that he racked up while defending himself against corruption charges that were later dropped.
Attorneys for former House Speaker Ray Sansom told a judge Wednesday that the state should pay the tab because the charges against the Destin Republican were related to his official duties while he was in the Legislature.
The judge did not say when he would rule on the case.
Sansom, who had been the House budget chairman, was accused of scheming to get $6 million in state money to pay for a hangar at the Destin airport for Jay Odom, a local businessman and major Republican donor. Defense lawyers argued the money was for a much-needed and hurricane-proof emergency operations center.
Sansom’s 2011 trial ended when State Attorney Willie Meggs dropped the charges after a judge refused to let a key witness testify.
At the time, Meggs said Sansom and Odom had agreed to reimburse Northwest Florida State College for money it spent on the hangar project.
But Stephen Turner, who is representing Sansom as well as the lawyers who represented him in the criminal trial, argued Odom had paid Sansom’s share out of political “convenience” and that Sansom had never really consented to the payment. The payment should not be viewed as an admission of guilt, Turner argued.
Sansom paid a $50,000 retainer to the criminal attorneys representing him when his legal ordeal began but still owes nearly $800,000.
Turner told Judge Kevin Carroll that while Sansom’s push to get money in the budget may have been viewed as unethical or an “embarrassment” to the Florida House he had a right to defend himself against criminal allegations.
He said that since Sansom was not convicted he deserved to have the state cover his legal costs.
“The question here is, is there guilt admitted here? There’s nothing showing that,” Turner said.
Lisa Raleigh, a special counsel for Attorney General Pam Bondi, argued, however that Sansom was never fully “exonerated” of the charges that included official misconduct and grand theft.
“The taint of private interest means Mr. Sansom’s private actions did not serve a public purpose,” Raleigh told the judge.
Sansom’s role in securing money for the airport project came to light after he took a six-figure job at the college the same day he was sworn in as speaker in 2008. He later stepped down from the speakership as fellow Republicans were getting ready to oust him. He ultimately wound up resigning from the Legislature amid a push by House members to pursue ethics charges against him.
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