State pays $600k to settle Sansom legal fees

  • August 5, 2015
  • /   Brandon Larrabee
  • /   economy

The state has paid $600,000 in legal fees to settle a lawsuit by former House Speaker Ray Sansom, bringing to an end the saga that led to the resignation of one of the most-powerful political figures in Florida.

A circuit judge in February ruled in favor of Sansom, who sought more than $800,000 to pay for his successful defense against corruption charges linked to a budget item approved while he chaired the House's budget-writing committee. The state appealed that ruling, leading to the settlement. Sansom was also looking for more than $14,000 for the lawsuit to recoup the criminal-defense fees.

"I respect the court's ruling and am pleased that we could reach a settlement that is significantly less than the judgment and will end all further litigation on this matter," House Speaker Steve Crisafulli, R-Merritt Island, said in a statement released Tuesday by his office.

Stephen Dobson, who represented Sansom in the initial criminal case, did not immediately return a call Tuesday seeking comment.

The state, under a common-law principle, is required to pay the legal bills of public officials who successfully defend themselves against charges related to public duties. But the state fought Sansom's request to do so, saying that the manner in which prosecutor Willie Meggs decided in 2011 to drop the criminal charges amounted to a settlement of the criminal case rather than a successful defense.

Meggs brought charges against Sansom in connection with a 2007 budget item that was supposed to pay for an emergency operations center in Sansom's Panhandle district. Meggs argued the item was really a thinly disguised effort to build a taxpayer-funded aircraft hangar for developer Jay Odom. Sansom has insisted that the project arose in response to devastating storms that hit Destin.

Meggs agreed to drop the criminal case in 2011 after being assured that Sansom and Odom would pay $206,000 to help reimburse the state for design costs of the project, which was never built. Odom, a political contributor to Sansom, paid the money, and the former speaker's lawyers said he was not really a party to the agreement

Leon County Circuit Judge Angela Dempsey rejected the state's arguments about paying Sansom's legal fees following a brief trial in February.

"Based on everything I heard and applying that to the case law that I'm required to follow, I'm going to find that what happened in this case was not any different than an acquittal," Dempsey said at the time.

The state filed an appeal in the case with the 1st District Court of Appeal, but moved to withdraw it on July 22. Two days later, the court dismissed the case.

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