Judge Orders State To Pay Sansom Legal Fees

February 28, 2015

A Leon County circuit court judge ruled Friday that state taxpayers will have to cover hundreds of thousands of dollars in legal fees for the defense of former House Speaker Ray Sansom, who was cleared four years ago of charges that had already driven him from office.

The decision came on the same day that Sansom took the stand in a lawsuit about his legal fees — marking the first time he had ever testified in open court about the case that left the man who was briefly one of the most powerful figures in the state out of office and, for a time, unemployed. Sansom, who is currently a vice president at a charter-school management company, said he would defend the project at the center of the dispute “for the rest of my life.”

Judge Angela Dempsey found in favor of Sansom and his criminal defense lawyer, who argued that the state was required 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.

“I think today completely solidifies the fact that I was completely acquitted. I was found completely not guilty,” Sansom told reporters outside the courtroom.

During the case, the state argued that the manner in which prosecutor Willie Meggs decided to drop the 2011 criminal charges, 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. Dempsey rejected that argument.

“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.

Dempsey still has to decide how much in legal fees to award Sansom, and in turn his attorney Stephen Dobson, but it is certain to cost the state several hundred thousand dollars. The plaintiffs were seeking almost $1million dollars in legal fees and interest.

Meggs agreed to drop the criminal case in 2011 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.

State lawyers argued that Sansom was included in the settlement and was expected to repay Odom for his half of the money — contracting claims that the former speaker was exonerated.
“There are zero cases in Florida supporting the proposition that a six-figure settlement is an exoneration,” Lisa Raleigh, a lawyer with Florida Attorney General Pam Bondi’s office, argued Friday.

But attorney Stephen Turner, who represented Sansom and Dobson, said the agreement with Odom was simply a “face-saving device” on the part of Meggs, who had just received what he has conceded was a devastating ruling in the case.

“It is plainly clear that he knew he had lost and he was trying to salvage something for the state,” Turner said.

During testimony Friday, the second day of the trial on the fee dispute, Sansom also gave his take on the emergency operations center that Meggs argued was really a thinly disguised effort to build a taxpayer-funded aircraft hangar for Odom. Sansom said the project arose in response to devastating storms that hit Destin in 1995.

The center was designed to withstand a powerful hurricane, Samson said, and could house emergency vehicles that were previously moved from the barrier island to a mainland facility before a storm. It would also serve as a locale for training first responders.

And Samson defended his decision to push for the inclusion of the project as House budget chairman in 2007.

“I will stand by this budget item for the rest of my life as being one of the best things that I’ve ever seen try to be done for my area,” he said.

Earlier, Dobson denied testimony by Meggs that Dobson had been involved in hammering out the deal that ended the case. He said Sansom specifically dismissed one version of the offer.

“I clearly communicated it to him, and he clearly rejected any offer to pay money or to waive his fees,” Dobson said.

After Dempsey’s decision, Sansom reiterated that he never agreed to anything.

“He lied about an agreement,” Sansom said of Meggs.

That brought a sharp rejoinder from Meggs.

“If Mr. Sansom wants to say I’m a liar … I would point out to you that I am still employed and he is not,” Meggs said. “And he resigned his position because of his conduct and I have not resigned my position because of my conduct.”

by Brandon Larrabee, The News Service of Florida


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