Friday, March 06, 2009

Evidence of Bad Intent

The publicly known facts in the Ray Sansom "college job offer" caper are, as we have written, highly suggestive of serious wrong-doing by someone, somewhere. This doubtless explains why a grand jury is looking into the matter even as you read this.

For those who haven't been paying attention, writer-editor-teacher Sherman Dorn has a detailed chronology of the ongoing scandal. So, too, does the on-line newspaper,

For present purposes, we can distill all that's happened to something like this:
  • Sansom, using his key state legislative budget position, snagged many, many millions more than seems righteous for a small hometown junior college, along with an additional $25 million for a 'campus' aircraft hangar building that seems certain to fill the needs of few on earth, except for a major Sansom political ally.
  • To cement the final deal, the college president, Bob Richburg, exchanged cozy emails with Representative Sansom so the two of them could plan a circuitous and bizarre way of satisfying the "open meeting" law while still making sure the public didn't show up.
  • The college got the taxpayer's loot.
  • The college president then hastily handed Sansom a brand new $110,000 job, although Sansom's own credentials, it turns out, fall short of the hastily drafted job description.
Now, to many this looks, feels, smells, and tastes exactly like the kind of shenanigans that excited the nation's interest -- and that of U.S. Attorney Pat Fitzgerald and his grand jury -- about former Illinois governor Rod Blagojevich. "Pay-for-play" it's called these days. Politicians getting paid off for using their public positions to play favorites.

However, the one weakness in every such case, as a number of commentators have remarked, is the question of "intent." How can anyone know what the mental intent of the actors may have been? Blagojevich, Sansom, Richburg, etc. -- they all will be claiming that they didn't possess the mental intent to commit a crime. So how can anyone prove otherwise, absent an outright confession?

Generally speaking, there are two ways.

First, the prosecution can proving mental intent by inferential reasoning from the actions of the parties themselves. Nothing wrong with that. It's common sense. The courts know it and often instruct juries on precisely this point.

If a man is seen walking into a bank with a mask over his head while waving a loaded gun, most of us would conclude beyond a reasonable doubt that he has the mental intent to commit a robbery. Don't wait for the confession; hit the decks!

But the interesting thing is that it isn't always the actions a party commits beforehand that give rise to an inference of criminal intent. Sometimes it's what they do afterward.

And that's what has captured the interest of the Florida blog Blast Off!, which points to Alex Leary's report in "The Buzz," a blog run by the St. Pete Times. Reports Leary:
Northwest Florida State College president Bob Richburg wasted little time filling a vacancy and awarding a $110,000 "college vice president" job to Rep. Ray Sansom.

So rushed were the negotiations, it seems, that Richburg did not have time to place the unadvertised job on the college trustee agenda on Nov. 18 -- the same day Sansom was sworn in as House Speaker.

But now after Sansom has quit the job and lost the speakership, Richburg is not rushing to fill the job once again. He says he is putting it on hold to see how the Legislature deals with the budget crisis.
As if there wasn't a state college budget crunch before the grand jury started meeting. As the Tampa Tribune pointed out in an editorial late last year, while Sansom was 'ladling a pile of pork on his would-be employer' the rest of the statewide college system was experiencing "one of the leanest budget cycles in years."

And that brings us to the second way a prosecutor often can prove "intent" without an outright confession: by convincing the fact-finder that the defendant is a liar. It's very hard to accept the word of anyone, even a college president, if he is shown to habitually utter prevarications.

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