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From the staff of the Tampa Bay Times

Sansom dealings headed to Grand Jury



North Florida State Attorney Willie Meggs says he will turn over complaints he has received about House Speaker Ray Sansom to a Leon County Grand Jury later this month.

Meggs_2 Meggs said he has not investigated the circumstances surrounding the $110,000-a-year job Sansom accepted at Northwest Florida State College after funneling millions of dollars in state construction money to the college.

"I have received complaints from people who think it needs to be looked into," Meggs said.

The news was first reported by the the St. Petersburg Times/Miami Herald Tallahassee Bureau.

But the newspaper has learned they are David Plyer a Democrat from Clearwater, who last month filed an ethics complaint against Sansom and Ray Bellamy, a Republican from Tallahassee who has taken out newspaper ads condemning Sansom and calling for an investigation.

“Please investigate allegations that Ray Sansom, employed as the District 4 representative to the Florida State Legislature, used in excess of $30 million dollars of the public’s money for personal gain. Sansom funneled this money to Northwest Florida State College in the past several years. In return, that college hired Sansom at an annual salary of $110,000,” Plyer asserted in an e-mail to Meggs on Tuesday.

The Times/Herald has contacted Sansom for comment. He announced Monday he was quitting the job effective Jan. 31 and has denied wrongdoing.

Bellamy spoke to Meggs by phone on Monday and focused mainly on questions surrounding $6-million in state money Sansom secured in 2007 for a college building at Destin Airport.

The building resembles an aircraft hangar that Sansom’s friend and panhandle developer Jay Odom sought state funding for and planned to park his jets in unless there was a major storm, at which time local emergency officials would use the building.

Northwest Florida State College says it will use the building, to be built next to Odom’s private airport operation, for emergency training and also allow officials to use it during hurricanes.

“The airport hangar just seems criminally corrupt,” Bellamy said in an interview Wednesday.

The college and Odom deny private jets will use the hangar, though Odom’s airport manager recently told the Times/Herald that had been the plan.

Also Wednesday, a second ethics complaint was filed against Sansom by a Tampa-area woman.

Susan Smith,a Democratic activist from Odessa, cited a House rule stating that lawmakers “shall respect and comply with the law and shall perform at all times in a manner that promotes public confidence in the integrity and independence of the
House and of the Legislature.”

The Florida Commission on Ethics, which can recommend fines or removal from office, next meets Jan. 23.

Once the Grand Jury is empaneled on Jan. 26, Meggs will give the complaints to jurors, leave the room and let them decide whether it should be investigated.

“I know people say I can indict a ham sandwich if I want to," Meggs said Wednesday. “But I use a grand jury as a citizens committee. I try to tell them, here are the facts, the law, your responsibility and ask them what they think.’’

If jurors vote to investigate, “we’ll develop a plan,’’ he added.

The last time Meggs asked a grand jury to look into legislative deal making, 24 lawmakers were charged with taking illegal gifts and trips from lobbyists. Those charged included the house speaker and appropriations chairs in the House and Senate.

In 1991 a Leon Grand Jury sharply criticized lawmakers for taking exotic trips and gifts from lobbyists and recommended they all be charged with crimes. Jurors also urged legislators to adopt simple laws forbidding the acceptance of gifts valued at more than $50.

It took another 14 years and a few additional scandals for legislators to get serious about banning gifts from lobbyists, but in 2005 all gifts were banned.

Meggs, a conservative 65-year-old Democrat in office since 1985, said he has frequently asked grand juries as a citizens committee to decide what the state should do and routinely puts every police shooting in his jurisdiction before a jury.

“Sometimes they are very complimentary of the officers and say how brave they are and sometimes they say they weren’t justified in the use of force,’’ Meggs added.

In the early 1990’s after Meggs prosecuted so many prominent lawmakers, Meggs discovered that his hometown public defender’s budget was higher than his own. No other public defender in Florida received more money.

Asked Wednesday if he feared additional impact on his already dwindling budget this year, Meggs said he could never make a direct connection to the budget cuts in the 1990’s, but the fight did lead to a better funding formula still in use today.

Lucy Morgan and Alex Leary

[Last modified: Tuesday, September 14, 2010 3:12pm]


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