When allegations first surfaced last year about possible conflicts of interest involving state funds earmarked for Northwest Florida State College and its award of a job to a prominent state legislator who arranged for the money, the college's president, Bob Richburg, angrily distinguished the situation from recent scandals in Alabama’s community college system that had led to resignations and even criminal charges.
"Those situations in Alabama, it’s unfair to compare this to those," Richburg told Inside Higher Ed at the time.
The comparison grew much stronger on Friday, when a Florida grand jury indicted both Richburg and the legislator, former House Speaker Ray Sansom, for their roles in what the indictment portrayed as a scheme by Sansom to direct money to the college so it could construct an airport hangar that a donor to Sansom had sought state money to build.
As detailed in the indictment, which makes felony charges against both Richburg and Sansom, the donor, Jay Odom, was rebuffed repeatedly by the Legislature as he sought about $6 million for his project. In 2007, though, Sansom arranged for Northwest Florida State (formerly Okaloosa-Walton Community College) to receive $6 million for a "multi-use educational facility" at Destin Airport, the same place where Odom sought his hangar.
The grant was one of two that Sansom arranged for Northwest Florida State, and his hiring by the college for a temporary, high-paying job last fall created intense scrutiny that led him to give up first the college job and eventually his speaker's post.
The grand jury's inquiry, which was prompted by reports in The Miami Herald and the St. Petersburg Times, found that college officials had agreed to sublease most of the facility to Odom and that Richburg had presented misleading information about the nature of the college's project. Sansom and Richburg were both charged with "official misconduct," and Richburg faces an additional charge of perjury. The grand jury notes that the Northwest Florida State vice president in charge of facilities knew nothing about the building until Richburg told him the Legislature had appropriated money for it.
"Officials can call the building whatever they desire, but the plans paid for by taxpayer dollars is an aircraft hangar," the grand jurors wrote. "[C]ommon sense would dictate that you do not build a classroom in a building just a few feet from where jet airplanes land and take off because of noise issues."
The grand jury also accuses Richburg and Sansom of violating Florida's Sunshine Law by holding a meeting in Tallahassee -- 140 miles away from the campus -- at which Sansom sought to thank members of the college's Board of Trustees for supporting the airport project. The jurors said that Richburg had advertised the meeting in the Okaloosa newspaper but that the quasi-private meeting violated the "spirit" of the open records law.
A lawyer for Richburg, Deeno Kitchen, told the Florida Courier that he believed Richburg would be vindicated, citing what he called "some mistake of facts" and an assertion that the accusations of official misconduct focus on the appropriation process, "and I didn't see how President Richburg had anything to do with that." Kitchen told the newspaper that Richburg planned to turn himself in next week.
In the meantime, Northwest Florida's trustee chairman, Wesley Wilkerson, said in a statement on the college's Web site -- a statement that mentions the indictment only obliquely -- that ''Dr. Richburg has taken leave and senior vice president Dr. Jill White will serve as the chief administrator of the college during his absence and until the board of trustees can meet and consider any other appropriate action deemed necessary.
"Serving students and helping them reach their educational goals is the primary mission of Northwest Florida State College and the central focus of the college's trustees, faculty and staff. The college will continue this focus as the legal process runs its course.''
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